Creativity and Selfishness

W  hat do you think? Do you like it?”

If you’ve made something, perhaps you have asked a question like this to someone, either directly or in your mind. Our questions are revealing. We need to know what people think.

I’m no different then most creative people. When I solicit feedback, I hope it’s good, but at the least I have learned to accept and deal with the alternative–that if it isn’t good, even to one person, maybe there’s something in the criticism that can make the work better, or at least me better for the next work. I try not to let criticism hit me personally. But it’s difficult to separate the two.

Kinda needy and pathetic, right?

 

How do you be creative without being selfish?

Ideally, my creative work rocks. It moves other people. That’s the goal, at least, the result I hope to see, and it’s why I solicit people’s opinions – even if it’s not the reason I make. (It’s paradoxical – we don’t create for the sake of others’ opinions, yet we can’t shake the need to know that they like it.) And there’s nothing wrong with creative feedback, or with conversations about the effect of your art and the meaning it makes. These conversations sharpen our work as creatives. The need is pretty universal, too –  unless you’re a total psychopath.

Yet the need for creative feedback has the potential to be selfish. It can turn into a form of validation, where we find not just helpful responses but some form of our identity in what others think. I’ll assume you’ve known a selfish artist in your time – or maybe you are one yourself. I know I have been, and hopefully I’m not anymore, but who knows.

The difference, I think, is one of motivations.

 

Selfishness and insecurity are closely related.

Where do you find your validation?
 Insecurity can lead to ambition, in an effort to find validation. We work harder and harder, always glancing sideways like five year-olds at the same people, saying, “Look what I can do!”  And of course where we find our validation is where we find our identity. This isn’t just pathetic, it’s destructive, and if you believe like I do that a loss of creativity is at the heart of many of our individual and social problems, then it’s a big deal.

Now, all of us have our moments, but the question is: where do you find your validation? You must answer this before you know your own true motivations.

This is highly important for any Christian who wants to create. Any “Christian artist,” although using that term makes me shrivel up like contact paper in a flame, must know the difference.

 

The question is, Why do you create?

Are you able to identify a single core reason? Do you ever create out of insecurity or a misunderstood sense of identity? Do you ever create in order to find personal validation? Do you ever create out of ambition? Each of these motivations are dangerous, because they leave us susceptible to the demons of creativity.

It’s only when we create out of a response to our being re-created in Christ that we are free from having to find our own identity in the things that we create. This is a challenge for our entire lives, because we’re never fully made perfect in Christ. Perhaps in a perfect world, we might only create for God’s satisfaction and our own pleasure. Yet as long as we’re breathing, we’re a saint and sinner combo. We’re recreated in Christ, and yet there are still moments where we find our identity wrapped up in our creation, where we seek validation from others.

Because creativity is so closely tied to identity, and our identity is imperfect, it’s natural that anyone who creates will seek validation and approval from others.

So how do you deal with the paradox of needing and using healthy feedback but avoiding validation, of learning what people think without letting that knowledge change you?

Here’s a tip:

 

Find a small group of trusted creative confidants.

What a creative person needs is trusted confidants, other people who understand the demarcation between creativity and identity, and how we create because we’re creative people, and recreated people, but that when we create, we’re not doing it, or we don’t want or intend to do it, for the purposes of self-validation.

If you either seek feedback from someone who is creative but not a believer, or with someone who is a believer but does not understand the creative life, then neither of those people are helpful to you. You need someone who understands what it means to be both creative and Christ follower.

I recommend a maximum of three. When you have those confidants, you’re free to solicit feedback and responses to your creativity in an honest and healthy way, because you know that your creative partners understand the motive and heart of the believer who is also creative.  People with an agreed upon understanding best can help one another grow into a more creative and fulfilling life.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).