If you’re committed to achieving your creative ambitions, then you’re probably prepared to make sacrifices – to work hard, to invest time, to spend money or go without it, and to face down fear, boredom, rejection and criticism.
But are you willing to be laughed at?
Fear of embarrassment isn’t something we hear much about in relation to creativity, but it’s a big reason why we don’t always act on our ideas.
To give you an everyday example – when I arrived at the petrol station the other day, there was a line of cars queueing for the pumps. There was also a row of two pumps available. And all the pumps looked identical to the ones people were queuing for.
I must have spent almost a minute sitting in the queue, being terribly British and not wanting to push in. And also because I didn’t want to look stupid for trying to use the pumps in the empty row, when everyone else could see there was obviously something wrong with them.
Eventually I shrugged my shoulders, pulled up at the pump, filled up my car, and went about my day.
There was nothing much at stake at the petrol station, but when it comes to creativity, it’s a different story. We want to do something new and different and surprising and original. Which by definition means doing something no one else is doing. So there’s always a chance that everyone else will point at us and laugh.
Twenty years ago, I was practising hypnotherapy and I was excited about the spectacular results I was getting with my creative clients. Novelists with writer’s block started writing again. Actors with stage fright started putting in the performances of their lives. Advertising creatives kept fighting and started winning against the daily rejection and criticism they faced.
I had clients raving about the transformation they were experiencing, and recommending me to friends. So I thought it was time to tell the world. I made a list of all the national magazines and journals in the UK arts and creative industries I could think of, and wrote to the editors proposing an article on hypnosis as a way of unlocking creativity.
A week later, I picked up the phone and started calling the editors on the list. I started with some of the smaller titles, many of which didn’t pick up the phone. I left a lot of messages on answerphones and with receptionists and PAs. I got a few polite ‘no’s.
Then I got through to an editor on a national magazine I had always admired. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘I remember your letter.’
My heart leapt.
Then she gave me the punchline: ‘We all though that was a bit weird.’
And she sniggered.
She didn’t guffaw or chuckle, or shriek with laughter. She didn’t call everyone in the office to join in the fun and laugh at me down the phone. But she definitely sniggered, and I was left in no doubt that I was being ridiculed.
I thanked her for her time, and put the phone down, burning with shame and embarrassment.
I looked at the list of impressive magazines, and felt ridiculous. I felt like giving up.
Then something in me thought, ‘Fuck it. What have I got to lose?’
I dialled the number of the most impressive and intimidating publication on the list. The one I’d been putting off for later, when I was hoping to have a few quick wins under my belt, so I would feel more confident.
This time, unbelievably, I was put straight through to the editor. He was charming. He said he remembered my letter and thought it was a really interesting idea. He said he’d like to commission an article on the subject.
He mentioned a figure in pounds. For a moment, I thought he was telling me this was how much I would have to pay to be featured in the magazine. Then I realised this was the amount he was proposing to pay me to write the article. I couldn’t believe my luck.
But it wasn’t luck. It was something that happened when I stopped caring whether somebody laughed at me or not, and I put my idea out there anyway.
Let’s pause for a moment in silent tribute to all the brilliant ideas and great inventions and amazing works of art that never saw the light of day because the so-called creator was frightened of being laughed at.
And while we’re at it, let’s pause to remember all the career opportunities that you and I have missed out on through fear of ridicule.
Or I tell you what, let’s not do that.
Instead, why don’t you and I promise ourselves that the next time we have a brilliant idea, that’s a bit on the edge, a bit risky, that might look silly to other people – and we find ourselves listening to the voice of fear – why don’t we decide to ignore the fear, and speak up and show up and do our best to make it happen for real?
You can hear an audio version of this article in this episode of the 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 2’17”.