In those happy days when I was starting out and writing books during the night while my wife and children slept, I was a business consultant during the day. One client was an anal-type organization–lots of rules, very little freedom, dictatorial–and many disgruntled employees. You might have worked in an organization like that. You may be working in one now.
One rule was that no one from one unit was to visit another unit during working hours. They were serious. Wherever you went you heard people saying, “Don’t get caught out of your unit.”
Your creator’s self-concept–self-image, self-estimate–is your internal, private opinion of the kind of creator you are and of the actions you are or are not capable of performing as a creator. It directly controls how successful you are in your creative endeavors and how full and satisfying your creative life will be. Like that nutty rule, your creator’s self-concept says, “Whatever you do, don’t get caught out of your self-concept.”
Your behavior has absolute trust in your creator’s self-concept and believes it and obeys it. You may have decided after five years writing that you’re a pretty average poet, so you work only hard enough to write average poems, never expecting to do any better. Your self-concept is perfectly content with mediocrity although you may have the potential for greatness. It is continually telling you to stay inside its definition of the kind of person you are: “You’re a decent painter but let’s face it, you’ll will never be much more than that.”
Many people I’ve met and you’ve met tell themselves they’re not creative. They realize that creativity could make them happier, but they claim they just don’t have it. Many people think, “Oh, a painter is creative, or a novelist or an architect. But I’m not a bit creative.” Yet researchers have demonstrated that the self-concept is so powerful and yet so malleable and so easy to change that the moment–the moment–people start thinking “I am creative” instead of “I’m not creative,” creativity increases. They can write and paint and perform dramatic roles passably well. Now they have a creator’s self-concept.
Disappointments lead some creators to think, “I can’t produce really superb art work. . .sell my stories to magazines…make a lot of money…place my paintings in the best galleries…get in a good show… compete with young creators…” and so on.
Many creators have such narrow self-concepts they’re living in a unit that’s only a fraction of the size of their true creative ability. They possess the capacity to accomplish high creative goals but they don’t realize they do. Other creators have wide and expansive self-concepts. Their actions are bolder. They are self-confident. They expect to excel and often do.
What’s holding narrow self-concept creators back? Don’t look at me. I’m not holding them back. You’re not holding them back. They are holding themselves back. Some creators—maybe you know a few of them—have self-concepts so narrow and confining that they have made themselves incapable of doing anything significant. Often they don’t even try.
Many of you reading this are fiction writers. But we are all fiction writers. ALL SELF-CONCEPTS ARE FICTIONS; THEY ARE ALL MADE UP. They are not real in the way a flower pot is real or a desk is. They are merely ways you have chosen to view yourself. From this insight it’s a short, leaping step to the next: “Hey, since I made up this damned self-concept and I’m not happy with it, and it’s holding me back, all I have to do to increase my possibilities and free up my creator’s mind and personality is to create another one and act accordingly,” or “Do I need a self-concept at all?” If your self-concept is right for you—if you’re happy with it—by all means keep it. But if it’s bringing you creative disappointment after disappointment and discouragement and you’re dissatisfied with it, you’d better, I think: (1) change it, or (2) operate without it.
I want to tell you two stories:
Story One: “The Storekeeper and the Thief”
In Japan in the nineteenth century, storekeepers were considered lily-livered weaklings. One storekeeper became sick and tired of this reputation. To prove that it was totally false he took lessons at a martial arts dojo. He devoted himself religiously and after some years he became an expert. After closing his shop late one night, the storekeeper and his wife started home down the dark streets carrying the day’s receipts. They had just turned the corner when a man holding a knife stepped out of the shadows and ordered the storekeeper to hand over his money.
At first he refused, but when the thief charged him, growling, “You miserable merchant, I’ll cut you to pieces,” the storekeeper lost his courage, fell to his knees, and began to tremble with fear. Suddenly his wife cried out, “You’re not a storekeeper, you’re a master of the martial arts.”
The storekeeper turned his head and looked at his wife. “Yes,” he said, “I am.” He stood, a warrior now, totally fearless, completely calm. He let out a powerful katzu, “battle shout,” and leaped at the thief. He defeated him easily.
Story Two: “The Teaman and the Ronin”
In feudal Japan, a servant, a poor practitioner of chado, the Way of tea, unwittingly insulted a ronin, a masterless samurai. Outraged, the ronin challenged the servant to a duel. “I’m not a warrior,” the teaman said, “and I’m very sorry if I offended you. I certainly didn’t mean to. Please accept my apology. ”But the ronin would have none of it. “We meet at dawn tomorrow,” he said, and as was customary, he handed the terrified teaman a sword. “Go practice,” said the ronin.
The servant ran to the home of a famous sword master and told him the terrible thing that had happened. “A unique situation,” the sword master said. “For you will surely die. The thing I might be able to help you with is isagi-yoku, the art of dying well.”
While they talked, the teaman prepared and poured tea. The masterful way he did it caught the eye of the sword master. He slapped his knee and said, “Forget what I just told you. Put yourself into the state of mind you were in as you prepared the tea and you can win this fight.” The teaman was shocked. The sword the ronin had given him was the first he had ever held. “What state of mind?”
“Were you thinking ‘I’m a teaman?’ ” asked the master.
“No. I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“That’s it!” The sword master laughed. “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head, ready to cut your opponent down. Don’t think you’re a teaman or that you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”
The next morning the ronin appeared on the field and the teaman immediately raised his sword overhead, his eyes on the ronin, his ears waiting for the battle cry. For long moments the ronin stared at the raised sword, and the determination in his opponent’s eyes. Finally the ronin said, “I cannot beat you.” He bowed and left the field.
The problem of these two men should seem familiar. Their predicament is one we all encounter every day. Our opponents aren’t usually thieves and they certainly aren’t wandering samurai ronin, but that’s not important. Those weren’t the main opponents anyway. The primary battle, the main event, was going on inside the storekeeper and the teaman. To win on the outside, each had to deal with a faulty, inadequate, self-defeating self-concept.
Option One: “I’m a Warrior, Not a Storekeeper.” Changing Your Self-Concept
Many creators are overlooking their creative abilities. They persist in thinking they’re storekeepers when if they just thought differently about themselves they would see what warriors they have the potential to be. Listen to the things you say about yourself and think about yourself that begin with “I am,” “I’m not,” and “I can’t.” They are your self-concept in action. And they directly control what is possible for you.
Robin tells herself, “I’ve been working on the thing I call ‘My Novel’ for years and can’t seem to finish it. It’s embarrassing. I have no will power.” And because of it she has real problems getting the damn thing off to a publisher. Ariel tells herself she’s not intelligent enough to write a Hollywood screen play. She doesn’t realize that intelligence is not fixed and final in a person, but can increase with use and with it her concept of herself as an intelligent woman.
Creators are what they are because they keep telling themselves they are. If they stop telling themselves they are, they change. If creators say to you, “I just can’t talk in front of large groups,” or “I’m not the sales type,” or “I’m not a really clever person,” and then ask you if there is anything they can do about it, you might suggest that they never, never say that again. Then suggest they counter every “I’m not” or “I just can’t” with a firm “I am” or “I can.”
Saying it isn’t enough. What is in your head doesn’t count for anything unless you translate it into action, “body knowledge.” It’s not enough to think, “Hey, I’m not just a storekeeper, I’m really a warrior after all.” To defeat the thief you have to fight, and you can because:
All behavior is nothing more than an act, a performance. Acting is easy. Everyone can act. We are all performers. As soon as a public speaker realizes that she is not a lecturer but an actor, her presentations get good. To BE confident, ACT confidently.
Find a model, someone who does well what you would like to do. Watch how she does it, then do it the same way yourself. Or borrow from a number of models.
Option Two: Operating Without a Self-Concept
The sword master advised the teaman, “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head. Don’t think that you’re a teaman or you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”
In sales training sessions I gave I often used a simple role-playing exercise that’s designed to demonstrate the teaman alternative. The teaman alternative is not replacing your old, limiting self-concept with a new and improved one. It’s not thinking you’re a cowardly storekeeper or a poor teaman, but it’s not thinking you’re a warrior either. It’s not holding any self-concept in mind, but just taking action, doing something.
After everyone in the training group had played the part of a sales person making a presentation to a potential customer, I asked them to list the things that they did well during the role-play and the things they would like to improve upon. Then we discussed the “like-to-improve-upons.” Sam said he was no good at thinking on his feet. He went blank. A real salesman, Sam said, is able to handle himself smoothly.
Gerri said her problem was talking too fast. Her words came shooting out so fast she often said the wrong thing. She got flustered. She blew sales.
One by one, they all had to tell me about their “improve-upons.” Midway through every description of a problem I stopped the speaker and said something like “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I’ll tell you what: show me how you would like to be able to do it.” Then I just sat back and watched the amazing thing that almost always happened. Virtually every time, they were all able to do what they said they had trouble doing or could not do at all. Now they were acting.
Sam, for example, actually did think on his feet, and responded smoothly and quickly to the prospect’s objections. Gerri actually became a more composed, together, non-flustered and relaxed saleswoman. Shy people who wished to act more boldly and self- confidently actually did. Those who wished to improve their body language did so. And tough, defensive people who “always” argued and who wanted to be more friendly and warm succeed in acting that way.
I had prompted each of the role-players to act directly without letting their self-concept affect their performance at all. They were doing before their self-concepts had time to inform them, “You just got through saying you couldn’t do that, so it doesn’t make any sense for this guy to ask you to.”
What the role-players learned is precisely what the sword master taught the teaman: You can do what even you believed you couldn’t if you forget about your self-concept totally.
Seeing how easy and effortless it was to forget about a previous self-concept and just act, just be, just perform was exciting for everyone. It was an unforgettable life learning experience.
Do whatever you’re doing creatively without any thought about your “I ams,” “I can’ts” and “I’m nots,” or any concern about “what bad thing will happen if I fail” or “what great thing will happen if I succeed.” You’ll be unhappy whenever your internal opinion of yourself makes you concerned with yourself instead of the creative action at hand.
The creative action at hand–the story or the painting to be crafted, the role to be played, the dance to be danced–they are all that matters, they are the main thing. Forget about everything else. Watch what happens. Watch your creative life change.
Parts of this post appeared in different form in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work And Life
© 2017 David J. Rogers
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