Is Fear of ‘Getting It Wrong’ Blocking Your Creativity?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!

If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

The fear of making a mistake and getting something ‘wrong’ can be paralysing for a creator. Paradoxically, this block can get worse the more successful you are. The more great work you’ve produced, the higher your reputation, the more you have to lose by making a mistake.

This is the problem faced by an anonymous Lateral Action reader, who responded to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.

Firstly thanks a lot for your Lateral Action blog – for someone who seems to be perpetually struggling with the creative process, it is massively useful!

I am a professional composer, working almost entirely by myself. I have found the process of creating harder and harder over the years. While occasionally it is enjoyable and seems to flow naturally, often it is fraught and I find myself being dragged away from whatever it is I’m supposed to be working on, distracted by anything and everything that will allow me a break from the task in hand.

I had a eureka moment late last year when I worked out that the reason for this ongoing battle in my head is that I’m terrified of getting it wrong. At every decision making moment along the way I question incessantly whether I’m doing the right thing. I fear that making the wrong decision will result in my work not meeting the very high standard I expect of it. Hence self-doubt, procrastination, and ultimately creative stagnation creep in. I have a ton of unfinished work. My unwillingness to commit affects not only my music but my ability to make career decisions, to find collaborators – even making everyday decisions on all kinds of things is a struggle!

Any advice on how to beat my fear of getting it wrong?

If you’re a composer, you must know the story of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

In 1913, the premiere of the ballet provoked a riot. The ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’ rhythms of the music and dance shocked an audience used to a more sedate evening’s entertainment. Booing and arguing escalated into punch-ups in the stalls. The police intervened, but even they couldn’t restore order until the performance had ended. Stravinsky left the theatre in tears.

And it wasn’t just an ignorant mob who hated the Rite. The composer Camille Saint-Saëns was among those who walked out, allegedly disgusted by Stravinsky’s (mis)use of the bassoon in the opening bars. Any artist will know that the most stinging criticism of all comes from one’s peers.

Clearly, Stravinsky had got it wrong.

And of course, we know better. The Rite of Spring is now acclaimed as one of the great works of the 20th century, and we shake our heads at the poor judgment of those who were unable to appreciate its genius from the start.

Yet even at the time, the ballet’s impresario Diaghilev said the riot was “just what I wanted”. It was a publicist’s dream. And more recently, musicologist Richard Taruskin has suggested that it was the choreography as much as the music that caused such an outrage, and Stravinsky had exaggerated the story of the protests about the music, in order to present himself as a cutting-edge composer.

So maybe Stravinsky got it right after all.

Or maybe there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ where creativity is concerned.

Maybe, whatever you do, someone, somewhere will accuse you of getting it wrong. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Maybe it does audiences the power of good to have their assumptions questioned and their senses assaulted by the ‘wrong’ kind of music, art, writing or whatever.

Maybe it also does creators good to get things wrong from time to time, to make mistakes and mess things up. To surprise or even shock themselves with a rough edge, dissonance or clumsy turn of phrase.

Remember the Persian carpet makers who include a deliberate mistake in every carpet they make. A perfect carpet would offend Allah. It would also mean that their work was done, that there was no loose thread for them to follow up next time.

Maybe playing it safe and avoiding mistakes is the biggest mistake you could make. If you do it for the rest of your life, you could end up looking back and wishing you’d taken a few more risks – and made a few more surprising, magical discoveries.

And in your case, I think there’s a mischievous, frustrated part of you that’s itching to make more mistakes, to make it more ‘wrong’, less perfect, and more human.

I think this part of you knows something very important about why you fell in love with music in the first place.

I think this part of you would secretly love to put a few noses out of joint with an unconventional composition, and see the shocked faces of your listeners.

I think that allowing this part of you out to play would be a lot of fun for you. It would help you loosen up and enjoy the process of composition.

So how can you do that? Here are a few suggestions. Try them out, and let me know how you get on.

1. Write with Your Body

I don’t know what your composition process is like, whether you have a daily routine or warm-up ritual. But I’d suggest that before sitting down to write, you do something to get out of your head and into your body. Your head is where all the worrying and judging and agonising happens. Your body is where the rhythms live, where your heartstrings are.

It could be as simple as a hot bath or shower. You might like to go for a walk or run. Or you might like to practice a discipline that helps you develop body awareness, like yoga, tai chi or walking meditation.

And when you start writing/playing, do it with your gut. Put down the first things that come into your head. You can faff around and tidy things up later – to begin with, just go with your first instinct and get it down as quickly as possible.

2. Stop Worrying

You need to cut out that anxious, nitpicky worrying habit. For some practical tips, read Why Worry? and 7 Ways to Stop Worrying When You’re Under Pressure.

3. Start getting things wrong.

Next time you sit down to compose, write the ‘wrong’ version, full of mistakes, the kind of conversation only an idiot or a rank beginner would produce. Then produce another ‘wrong’ version, this time featuring a completely different set of mistakes. And so on, until you’ve got at least five completely unusable manuscripts. (Don’t worry, no one need ever see them.)

Give it a few days, then go back to the wrong versions. Ask yourself whether there’s anything at all, even the slightest detail, that you quite like and could use. Even if it’s still clearly wrong for this specific piece, you might find the germ of another composition in the midst of all that dross.

4. Stick Two Fingers Up at the Critics

If you find you can’t help thinking about critics, peers, listeners and other people who might criticise you for getting it ‘wrong’: stop composing, and turn around. Imagine you can see them in the corner of the room. Stand up and walk over over to face them. Look them in the eye and stick two fingers up at them. Enjoy the look on their faces. Then go back and get on with your work.

5. Get Good Feedback

Find someone whose opinion on music you really respect. Maybe you already have a mentor – if not, look out for one, they are worth their weight in gold. Ask them for honest feedback on your work, and whether they think you could benefit from loosening your tie a little.

6. Grant Yourself Poetic Licence

Write down these words from the poet e.e. cummings (including the ‘wrong’ use of small caps) and pin them up above your desk:

and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

What Solutions Can You Think of?

Have you ever got over a paralysing fear of getting it wrong? How?

Have you ever made a ‘mistake’, only to later realise it was a creative discovery?

Any other tips for overcoming the fear of getting it wrong?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

  1. Tell Us Your Creative Blocks – and We’ll Help You Smash Through Them!

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

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“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. This is a great piece – reflecting a very common and debilitating issue for many of us. I often have confidence about my ideas and worry about a wrong or flubbed execution.

    Making anything requires a big leap of faith. As creatives, we’re called to step away from dualistic thinking such as right or wrong. We need to be more flexible and far-reaching than that kind of thought allows.

    I underline #1 and #5 as the most powerful strategies I use. Being physical (tennis, yoga, boxing, biking and walking) help me move through fear. The skills-based practices like yoga and tennis help me develop confidence that I see immediately carried over into my work.

    In looking at being wrong, I’d only add another perspective: discerning between craft and innovation. Say you’re a writer and you’ve gotten it wrong grammatically or factually…that’s something to be concerned about.

    If you’re judging yourself as wrong regarding developing something new, you’re not really the person to make that call. You’re too close to it.

    Mark’s example of the Riots of Spring is a perfect one to challenge us to not be small-minded or mired in convention.

    Thanks for another great article, Mark, with compelling examples as always!

  2. “In looking at being wrong, I’d only add another perspective: discerning between craft and innovation. Say you’re a writer and you’ve gotten it wrong grammatically or factually…that’s something to be concerned about.”

    Thanks Cynthia, an excellent distinction to bear in mind. It’s fine to break the rules in the name of innovation, but not so good if it’s out of ignorance!

    As someone once said, you nee to learn the rules before you can break them creatively.

  3. Just wonderful ideas. I do find a walk to be my best stimulation, but don’t think to do it when I need it most.

  4. As someone who makes a living writing and coaching people around the issues of getting past the fears, i loved your article which I stumbled upon thanks to my Google Alerts. Your points are well made and as the author of The Fearless Factor, I’ve devoted a lot of time and materials to the idea that failure is choice, and we are all, in one way or another, failing our way to success. Embrace it. There’s only one word in my vocabulary that I use on things that don’t work out…..NEXT! I look forward to reading more.

  5. Extremely interesting. Reminds me of an article in Psychology Today many years ago, “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat.”

    Then again, MIT professor Seymour Paper, co-inventor of the LOGO computer programming language for children, believed that one of the most useful things kids can learn from programming computers is a “debugging approach to life.”

    I’ve been fortunate to see how “the perfect is the enemy of the good” in three areas of my life: as a full-time writer, as a distance runner, and in a 40-year practice of yoga meditation (www.ananda.org). In each of these fields, mistakes are a required step in making progress. The best way to thrive is, as your wonderful post suggests, to be playful – make the sand castle experimentally, then tear it down with a laugh and start over, having discovered a better way to proceed.

  6. I wonder if the fear of getting “it” wrong is really the fear that “we’re” wrong–if we stumble, we lose credibility, our reputation suffers, or to put it most simply, we end up looking like an idiot, and everyone will know we’re talentless frauds.

    At least, that’s what the fear tries to tell us.

    I have one of those little monsters that perches on my shoulder and tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Life coach and author Martha Beck claims this is why writers drink.

    I’ve decided to turn him into Captain Jack Sparrow.

    Daft like Jack – it doesn’t matter what goes wrong, it’ll all work out in the end, and I’ll have one hell of a ride getting there.

  7. Wow, I just went through that entire thought process on my latest project..”what if I get it wrong? Then I need more materials. Oh, I have those, with enough to spare.” And then..”Wait! I’m making this up, it’s what ever I make it.” funny, how I needed to actually articulate that, actually ask those questions, but then also answer them.

  8. Years ago when I was an official art student (I am still a student, but unofficially), I created some figurative pieces that caused a bit of a stir with some of my fellow students…many hated what I produced and were full of distain. I was at first hurt but then rather astonished to find I was receiving notice by others and my work was published a few times in the newspaper and my instructors began mentioning me to other artists they knew. One instructor even commissioned me to paint her grown children. It was an important lesson. Not everyone is going to love what you do, but the worst fate for an artist, in my opinion, is being too safe to even be considered – in other words, being ignored. Reaching out for more is always a gamble but makes living the life of an artist truly worthwhile.

  9. Fear of getting it wrong is especially prevalent in the IT field. I still don’t understand why folks think they have to know everything all the time. The one thing I learned from working at Microsoft (many moons ago) is that it’s perfectly OK to say “I don’t know” as long as you follow it up with “but I know where to find that answer”.

    Connecting mind and body is also a tough one for those of us glued to computer screens 10 hours a day. Half the time you just feel like a support system for fingers and eyeballs.

    These are great tips and I’m really digging the series as a whole. Can’t wait for the new entries.

  10. Getting it wrong is an essential part of getting it right.

    At least, that’s how I find learning piano. If I was afraid to get it wrong, I would never, ever press a single key.

    Which would mean I never practiced.

    Which means I never would get it right.

    @gabriel – regarding ‘connecting mind and body’, learning a musical instrument helped me with that. As well as performing some of the functions described in point 1 of the article.

  11. Chris Vaughan says:

    Picasso’s technique was never to refer to his paintings as ‘works of art’ but always as ‘experiments’ or as ‘research’. A little bit of self-deception that got him past the perfectionist road block, resulting in a lifetime of continuous productivity.

  12. How perfect for me to reads right now. I’m a visual artist trying to prepare new works for a show. I’m trying to keep my work loose, yet fear of screwing it up (I think) is keeping me paying more attention to chores, etc.

    Will try the suggestions listed as well as Picasso’s (thanks Chris!). Perhaps I can use a tool that lawyers and doctors use: call my business a ‘practice’. I’m never quite sure I’m getting it right anyway, it’s all just practice!

    Thank you Mark for all you do!!

  13. Fantastic series!! I think there are many folks out there who haven’t yet even pinpointed this “fear of getting it wrong”. Instead, they may be sitting around in a funk, wondering, “what’s wrong with me”, which adds on guilt, shame, and makes the hole even harder to dig out of. Thanks for reminding us all that there are constructive ways to get around the blocks, and get us back to opening up to our best work…in whatever arena that may be.

  14. Thanks everyone, wonderful comments, sorry for the slow response, I’ve been so busy behind the scenes at LA Towers.

    @ Philip – Yep, very easy to get glued to the desk/computer when a stroll in the sunshine would be more productive.

    @ Jaqueline – “NEXT!” Love it!

    @ Runbei – Glad I’m not the only one in perpetual debugging mode. 🙂

    @ Stacey @ Ali – Yes, we definitely get stuck when we take things personally and identify with the problem. (Maybe I should include that in this series…)

    @ Karen – Better to annoy a few people than produce something totally inoffensive. I recently read a poem at a workshop and one of my favourite comments was “This should have a health warning, like a strobe light, the rhythm made me feel sick!” 🙂

    @ Gabriel – “but I know where to find that answer”. I’ve been saying that for years, the internet is now making me feel vindicated.

    @ Simon – One of my favourite quotes is from the Zen master Katagiri Roshi, “You have to say something,” the implication being even though it will inevitably be ‘wrong’.

    @ Chris – Thanks, v interesting snippet. I must ‘do’ Picasso on Lateral Action one day…

    @ Tracy – My pleasure! Yep, this is all practice too…

  15. This article reaffirms some things I’ve been realizing lately, and I’m so glad I came here to read it. I am in a field where I really can get things wrong (theoretical physics), but if I spend too much time worrying about that instead of doing my thing, then I’ll never get to the peer review part of the process. Or heck, even before that point, I need *something* written before I can polish it, so the first step is to get on with the writing already!

    The other thing I’ve realized is that there are aspects to my work that are purely stylistic, and I need to stop worrying about how my style is different. When I embrace my own approach instead, my ability to express the concepts flows out much more naturally. Imagine that: I work better when I omit the self-doubt phase! Whodathunkit! 🙂

    Anyways, thanks for this, and for the “creative block” article that led me here.

  16. Erg. What I meant to say about style was that DIFFERENT is not WRONG! 🙂 So fear about it can just bugger off, thankyouverymuch!

  17. Thanks Qrystal. Theoretical physics eh? I’m delighted to have been some help in solving problems I would almost certainly not understand. 🙂