May 26, 2018

Body of Belief before Body of Work

One of the most important moments I had in graduate school was when I was trying to design a lamp.

Yes, a lamp. I was sitting in the fabrication lab, two days before the final presentations, utterly unhappy with the design I had come up with and utterly disappointed in myself. Then, magically, someone sent this Ira Glass video on the class mailing list (it’s just 2 minutes, watch before you read more):

I watched it on loop and sat there crying.

A lamp caused all this anguish? Well, it wasn’t just any lamp. It was for a class called Formgiving, and we had to ‘design’ an ‘Illuminating Object’. Something unique. Crafted from my imagination, with my designerly voice, hopefully filled with the distilled essence of my life’s experiences. A novel object.

And well what I had gotten so far was just well…a turd. I felt completely incapable. But the video helped. The video explained what was happening to me. I was making stuff, but I also knew it wasn’t very good. And that was okay, I had to keep making more, and bomb every once in a while.

Even with that learning, it took a after graduate school to give myself the permission to call myself a designer. Other people’s work always felt more imaginative, more nuanced, more courageous, better crafted, more avant-garde. Mine was oh-kay.

Your inner critic can be a real asshole.

Lately, I’ve come up with another phrase to frame this journey:

You need to create a body of belief, before you can create a body of work.

What do I mean? The Free Dictionary defines a ‘body of work’ as ‘the total output of a writer or artist’. Some folks have just an insane body of work. Anthony Burgess’ books. Tina Fey’s comedy. Prolific Dribbble designers. And I want that. I want to have a body of work.

But what happens is that you just don’t ever build up a body of work because what your making doesn’t seem very good. And you don’t finish the projects your started. You stop too soon. So…no body of work, sorry.

A “body of belief” then, is also work, but the function that serves is to shore up your belief that you can actually do it. Some folks are able to do this naturally. Power to them. But there are some who refuse to believe in oneself without any evidence. A body of belief creates that evidence, the one that you can shove in your inner critic’s face and move on.

There are other places that this idea is echoed.

David Kelley often would say that you need to take people through a series of small successes for them to feel creatively confident. I think these successes make them creatively capable first.

I re-read ‘It Happened in India’ recently, and Kishore Biyani shares a story about organizing a dandiya festival that was successful and he writes “..most importantly, it gave a boost to my confidence and abilities”.

Here’s another image that I found via Lucy Bellwood created by @ShatteredEarth that shows the gap between the quality of work and your perception of it.

And this is true too. It repeats :(. You need fresh beliefwork from time to time.