Weird Stuff Only

As you learn about a topic or achieve proficiency with a skill, it can become intimidating to utilize that skill or learn more about that topic.

I was an art student when I arrived at university, and spent my first year doing typical arty-things: drawing, painting, sculpting, photographing.

I segued into a dual-emphasis degree in graphic design and illustration my second year, which required some different focuses, but still necessitated quite a lot of drawing, composing, color theory, and the like.

I’ve thus had both formal training and a fair bit of practice in everything from doodling to figure drawing to masterwork studies, so when I apply ink or graphite to paper, there’s typically more pressure embedded in that process than there might be for someone who was never graded on their illustrative efforts.

It’s beneficial and satisfying to invest oneself in challenging activities, and that can mean exploring unfamiliar territory or more deeply investigating familiar terrain.

Romping through lesser-known spaces typically isn’t as imbued with expectation, though, while reinvesting in existing expertise can be burdened by comparison.

It can be liberating to be a novice, in other words, because there are fewer applicable measures of success, and those that do apply are generally much easier to casually achieve.

I struggle with this dynamic sometimes, because although I enjoy practice and learning for its own sake, I also enjoy the sense of growth and accomplishment derived from doing things well.

I can usually nudge aside my perfectionist instinct, but I do reflexively expect a certain level of quality when traversing well-tread terrain and applying familiar skills.

I decided I wanted to get back into drawing a month or so ago, but the last few times I’d sat down to actually illustrate something more than a casual doodle, my pencil kept returned to familiar subjects and well-worn styles—nothing interesting or surprising.

It was still an enjoyable experience, but it wasn’t as rewarding as I had anticipated. And there certainly wasn’t any growth involved.

I ordered a new sketchpad and a few new drawing pencils, and when these supplies arrived, I wrote “Weird Stuff Only” on the cover of the pad.

The idea was that this block of 100 pages would only be used for new styles, new subjects, and different approaches to drawing than I’d tried before.

The label was a declaration that within the confines of these pages, my metrics for “good” would be different: it wasn’t about creating things that would earn me a solid illustration class grade, nor was it about creating work that would impress other people.

This pad would be for strange stuff, novel stuff, unusual and awkward stuff. This would be a home for purposeful experimentation and failure.

It’s a small thing, but that little label did help me feel more comfortable with this decision, even though the words were only symbolic an internal change of intention.

The same is true of many permissions we grant ourselves: it’s okay to try and fail, it’s okay to experiment and grow, it’s okay to just enjoy this thing or activity rather than needing to be good at it, it’s okay to take some time to recover or indulge, it’s okay to have aspects of your life that will not earn you any external validation.

It’s all okay, and ideally we feel that okay-ness without needing tangible evidence of it.

But when it’s a struggle to get there, sometimes a little note, reminder, or label can be helpful in triggering the proper mindset and setting the desired tone.

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