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On creativity and motivation


I wrote this letter to my daughter, Nicole, upon her college graduation in 2012. I recommended she read Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It's the best work I've read on the topic of creativity and motivation. Much of my letter was directly taken from their book. I hope this portion offers something useful to young readers.



"I invite you to read Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I include sections from their book here as words of wisdom during this very exciting time of your life; the next step of your wonderful journey.


Fear and expectation are powerful forces that can stop us short of doing our best work. Fear is most often based in doubt about our own level of talent. Talent, in common understanding, is what comes easily. Mozart had so-called “natural talent”. Most people say it was “by the grace of God"…buy Mozart developed his talent constantly and feverishly. Without that, his young talent would have been forgotten as quickly as all those once considered “naturally talented”. Most talented people, sooner or later, inevitably, reach a point where the work doesn’t come as easy as expected, or as rewarding. They begin to think “Aha! It’s just as I feared – I haven’t the talent for this!” Or they think they cannot work without a certain new, or next, thing to make the work easy again, or they go a different direction by saying they don’t really want it bad enough or that the outcome will never satisfy their "perfectionism" so why bother pressing on.


Know this: you have all the natural talent you need. All artists waste time worrying about how much natural talent they have, but only a few realize it is enough to get on with the business of developing it. All talent remains a constant if not developed through work. Talent must be developed to become a lifelong joy and reward. If it is not developed, it will become written off as youthful ambition, or worse yet, “pipe dreams”. Don’t let this happen to you. You can only develop talent as a working artist; to relinquish your work is to relinquish your talent.


Here’s a story I think says a great deal about talent and expectation. A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced. Simply stated; the more clay pots that they made, the higher their grade for the semester. The other side of the class would be graded on the quality of the one pot they would make for the semester. The class began and the quantity students produced many ceramic pots while the other students pondered and challenged themselves how to make the perfect, or at least, their “best” ceramic pot. At the end of the semester an astonishing fact came to light. None of the quality pots artistically compared to some of the pots created by the quantity group. Production, the freedom to create, was more successful in creating art than striving for indescribable and unobtainable expectation. More precisely, the freedom to learn from creation was the catalyst of developing talent and producing higher quality art. Keep in mind that the “quantity” students had to complete every clay pot. Every idea was taken to completion; every pot was finished and presented. The “quality” pot students considered many ideas and formed many beginnings, but only one pot was completed. Think of how many clay pots they failed to finish that could have been masterpieces. You must complete your work if you want to discover your own masterpieces. The lessons from this story apply to all types of talents, skills and ideas.


Many artists believe that creating great art means doing art flawlessly, ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify all the masters of art. To expect perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is common and predictable. As they see error (or they create fear by comparing themselves to others supposedly with more talent), they steer their work toward what they imagine they can do perfectly or what can be done without risk and without comparison. They cling to what they are comfortable with, away from risk and exploration. Sooner or later they settle for what they can do easily…something with less art, something less noticeable. It becomes seemingly nonsensical to develop your riskier, more visible talents. Within a short time, their talents are buried away.


Remember: Passion does not trigger commitment; Commitment triggers passion. College was a stop on your journey and now you're headed back out to sea. Explore onward my dear. May you love life as much as I love you!"