Is It Selfishness Or Creativity?

Does saying no to requests for your time and attention make you a selfish person?

There is an excellent article written in Medium by Kevin Ashton, which talks about how creative people value their time.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Hungarian-American psychology professor, devoted 30 years to research on how creative people live and work. While researching for his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” Mihaly wrote to 275 famous creators asking them to be interviewed for the book. A telling sign in the habits of creative people was that 1/3 said no to being interviewed, and another 1/3 simply did not reply at all. 

The reasons for saying no ranged, but they all shared a central focus…….their time was too valuable to give up freely. Ashton writes: 

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations.” 

In our society No is seen as a negative word or action. We are not taught to say no, but to say yes. We are told to be helpful to each other, to be considerate, to be selfless, while No makes people think the opposite. To those that say no to helping a friend, or donating work, giving back, or sharing our time, we are labelled as selfish, egotistical, rude, unfriendly, uncaring, and more.

For the artist balancing the need for creative time with the demands from others creates a real tension. Made worse is the fact most artists are very generous and compassionate by nature. Most artists want to foster a better world, so saying no goes against the very nature of most. 

Morning Dip – 8×10” – Acrylic on panel

The problem increases for artists with little to no outside help, as all tasks of managing our career fall on us and we must balance our creative time with our management time. There is a lot to do outside the studio. Submissions to make (just weeding through all the opportunities requires a good deal of time), shows to attend, bookwork, enquiries to answer, etc. 

Not so long ago I said yes to everything. In 2008 I had been heavily involved in the fibre arts for several years. I’d spent a few intense years working with a college fibre arts restructuring program. I was helping to write one of the programs levels and was volunteering my time to organize workshops for their annual festival. I was teaching. I was writing for publications. I was researching textile history. I was doing so much for everyone else with the end result of very little time left to actually create. In short I burned out.

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”
– Jack London

In July 2008 I taught my last class. I hung up my fibre tools, took my camera and ran away, so to speak. Along the way I learned to say no and I learned that if I wanted a career based on my creativity I had to protect my time like it was the crown jewels. I had to learn to say no. It wasn’t an easy task.

I said yes a lot early on, especially as I transitioned my career away from the fibre arts into the visual arts. I donated work (shame on me!). I applied for every reasonable show opportunity, and then drove all around the province attending openings and events, I spent a lot of time online visiting other artists blogs and sites socializing. As my career progressed I gave interviews, I wrote, I answered questions, I tried to give back by helping others. I was starting to feel a familiar tension creeping in, as I spent my days creating and long nights trying to do everything else. No started getting easier.

Ashton writes: “No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.”

Today I say No a lot. I say no to teaching. I say no to a lot of opportunities. I say no to many interviews and publicity. I say  no to going to openings. I say no to volunteering. I gave up socializing online. Sure I feel guilty. The worst is saying No to helping kids learn. Yes I worry about being seen as a snob, or being selfish, uncaring or any of the other derogatory perceptions from saying no, but I have also realized that its not my problem if that’s how others choose to view me. I intend to continue having a successful arts career. That’s the price I have to pay for it.

Without creation and the time that requires, I have no career and I have no income. I have a lot I want to accomplish in my career. I want to learn and grow as an artist. I want my work to improve and evolve. The one thing all my goals require is time; and the clock ticks faster with every passing year so I have grown selfish of my time. 

“Sometimes you’ve got to let everything go – purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything… whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.”
– Tina Turner

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