For the last twenty-one years, I’ve rarely stopped moving. Though my artistic ambitions have changed drastically, I’ve maintained a compulsion to push forward. As a high school student, my dream was to write for DC Comics. No one could dissuade me. I was committed to making trackable steps toward this career on a daily basis. Eventually, I decided not to limit myself to such a hyper-specific job; my creativity was far too multi-faceted. I instead set my sights on becoming a self-employed artist.
I believed social media was the quickest path to achieving this. So, I poured countless hours into developing an online following, only to discover that social media demands compromises. I had to devote most of my energy toward gimmicky videos and promotional posts to have a shot at success. And even my primary projects required catering to the masses… Fan films and travel vlogs seemed much more popular than my original stories, so my focus shifted. I told myself I just need to make art that’s popular, and then once I have an audience, I can make the art I really want to make! Upon becoming aware of this trap, I abandoned ship.
Since quitting social media, I’ve had the space to explore questions about myself as an artist. What types of stories do I want to tell? What mediums do I find most fulfilling? How can I improve my art? How can my art improve the world? I’ve produced some of my favorite projects in the last couple years, and it’s been incredible.
But the last couple years have also been deeply challenging and painful. As I discussed previously, I’ve been dealing with a chronic eye condition for quite some time. It was originally diagnosed as a form of Dry Eye, which took 8 procedures and months of daily treatments to be mostly “fixed.” Yet despite my objective improvement, the pain has not decreased in the slightest. It seems I have an underlying nerve issue causing extremely heightened sensitivity and pain in my corneas. I am seeking help regarding this condition, and should hopefully have a treatment path soon.
So… my artistic growth has been hindered by my physical incapabilities. At least, that’s how I viewed it until recently.
For years, I’ve carried an internal narrative about artistic success. I’ve always viewed my projects as stepping stones to something bigger. Perhaps a career as a novelist, comic book writer, or big-league director. Or better yet, an independent multi-medium artist with supportive fans around the globe. Our capitalistic society tells us that our passion must be our career. It is less valid if it is not profitable. This is a concept I’ve been unlearning as of late.
Why is a famous guitarist performing in front of thousands considered a “rock star”, while a person playing campfire songs for their family is just “a guy who plays guitar”? Why is a writer with a best-selling book considered an “author”, while a person with a notebook full of poems is just “an aspiring/wannabe author”? The answer is simple… In our society, artistry is only considered successful and valid when it attracts fame and fortune. Art can be anyone’s hobby, but it cannot be your identity unless it pays your bills, funds your lifestyle, and is seen by thousands of people across the world. This mentality was ingrained in me since childhood. It’s taken me my entire life to break free.
Throughout my childhood, teachers praised my creativity and said “You’ll be a movie star someday!” or “You’re gonna write a best-selling book!” These compliments certainly motivated me, but they also fed the narrative that my art should always be career-based. A vision was permanently implanted in my mind, wherein I was a rich and famous artist, with a massive audience of devoted fans. I’ve held onto this vision for so long, it feels inevitable. Up until recently, I’ve never considered a reality in which this dream doesn’t come true.
But lately, I’ve been debating the value of “goodness” over “greatness.” There is beauty in living a life without fame and fortune. There is value in creating art regardless of its profitability. Maybe my books won’t become world-famous, but maybe they will have a profound impact in my community. Maybe my films won’t be remembered for centuries, but maybe my grandchildren will watch them and be inspired. And maybe that’s enough for me.
I’ve always idolized artists who chose a definite aim, and followed through until they acquired their dreams. It’s an admirable approach that seems to work well for some… but I may need a different route. Of course, I would love to be recognized for my work, earn a living from my art, and have an audience of people interested in my stories. And I would be honored to have my books published around the globe, or receive a ginormous Hollywood budget to produce a film. But it’s time for me to slow down, and acknowledge it’s okay if I never reach that “promised land.” It’s okay to be right where I am. Most of the legendary artists died penniless. Greatness is a ruse. Very few successful people say that fame and fortune solved all their problems. The “greatest” artists of our time still have emotional and physical struggles. And those who act like their monetary success makes them 100% happy always appear rather shallow.
Art is a means of self-expression, self-improvement, and self-healing. It is a way to connect with one’s innermost spirit. It is a vessel to capture and release one’s imagination. It is an opportunity to forge bonds and memories with other creative humans. It is a tool for impacting individuals and societies. It is a manner of leaving a legacy. These qualities are far more important than any recognition it may garner, or profit it may earn. I would continue to tell stories if they never earned me a cent, and if my audience consisted only of my immediate friends and family. That’s been the case for my entire life, and it’s been more than sufficient.
Now, let’s circle back to my chronic pain. I thought my condition was inhibiting my art. But that’s because I viewed my art-making as a linear trajectory, all leading up to this mythical “end goal.” Indeed, this condition has disrupted my Five Year Plan. It has delayed many milestones. It has screwed up my personal deadlines. But my art can still exist without these structures.
So, for the first time in my life, I’m slowing down. I’m lifting all deadlines. I’m taking a break.
I thought by choosing a life of artistry and passion, I had escaped the capitalistic rat race. But I’ve been running my own rat race this entire time without realizing. I’ve been tirelessly working toward a goal, without ever stopping to consider if I truly wanted it. And I’ve been holding myself to a high standard of productivity, perhaps because it seemed necessary to achieve the hugely successful career I’ve been told I must have.
This revelation was difficult to believe. After all, storytelling is my truest calling. It fills me with tremendous joy and purpose, so how could it be doing me any harm? Well, I’ve unintentionally enforced structures onto my passion, and these structures are not conducive to the type of freedom I need as an artist, and as a human. Timelines can still be very valuable and necessary. Productivity, passion, work ethic, and dreaming big remain part of who I am. But for now, I’d like to discover the version of me that exists when I remove all deadlines and expectations. This should be exciting.
It’s also time to give my body a genuine chance to rest. I am enduring serious physical pain every day because of my condition. It is emotionally taxing and physically sickening. I need to accept that my body requires rest, and that my health is my highest priority. I recognize my privilege; many people would not be able to take a hiatus from work, regardless of physical ailments. But in an ideal society, such a thing would not be considered a privilege. Rest is a necessity, and one I ought to afford myself.
This removal of expectations also extends beyond my creative work. I set high standards for myself when it comes to seeking joy and meaning in life, especially through travel. I have internalized many narratives about how and when I will travel the world. I have plans to experience unique cultures, natural wonders, and diverse people through my adventures. If I was unrestricted by pain, I would be embarking on some ambitious trips at the moment. But instead, I am learning to accept my current situation, and acknowledge that my adventures will be limited for the time being.
My inability to safely move through the world, as well as my struggle to partake in simple daily activities, brings me a great deal of stress and anxiety. These heavy emotions radiate in my mind throughout the day, and have even infiltrated my sleep; I’ve been experiencing occasional panic episodes in the night, accompanied by nightmares about my health. Hence why this break is necessary… If I remove the urgency that comes with these self-imposed timelines to create, travel, and conquer life, I can find solace in this season of stillness, and patiently look forward to days of wellness and passion. I can make peace with being a simple organism on the planet Earth. Because when all social structures are stripped away, that’s all we really are. Creatures of the Earth.
We can tell ourselves stories of destiny and greatness, but we are all subject to the inevitable waves of life. And we may sail through them as hurriedly or as slowly as we please.
Like many others, I too often ask the question What will people think? Much of my anxiety is derived from this irrational fear of being judged. My intense productivity was a subconscious attempt to impress people. My deadlines were partly an attempt to keep up with the accomplishments of others my age, or perhaps get ahead of them. And now, as I embark on this deliberate break, I feel hesitation. I feel concerned that I will fall behind on life, and I will be judged for not keeping up.
But there is no “behind” or “ahead.” There is no rush.
We are here to exist. It’s okay to just exist.
That’s what every other organism on the planet is doing.