How to deal with doubt and stay true to your creative vision
A musician and an actress share their tips for navigating the doubt, burnout, and insecurities that can bubble up in any creative life.
A little doubt is normal — healthy, even — but too much can feel paralyzing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So what do you do when your livelihood relies on your ability to communicate your creative vision with confidence?
As part of our Hot Topics series, we recently sat down to discuss just that with two Patreon creators: Abigail Thorn, an actress, writer, screenwriter, and creator of Philosophy Tube; and Ben Miller, known as Wrekonize, a musician, producer, podcaster, and vlogger. The main takeaway? You may not be able to avoid doubt, but you can learn how to get better at anticipating it, weathering it, and, in some cases, even using it to your creative advantage.
Here, we explore five tips for navigating doubt like a pro.
Establish your values — and stick to them
When your art form is also a source of income, it can be easy to get preoccupied with views, clicks, or likes. To help stay focused, try establishing a clear framework that brings together your creative vision and values — something that can serve as a guiding light. For Abigail, creating a checklist of her values to reference when she’s working on a creative endeavor helps stave off feelings of insecurity. If a video checks all the boxes, then she knows with confidence that it’s good enough to put out into the world. So, the checklist also serves as a form of grounding validation.
Every time she makes a video for Philosophy Tube, Abigail asks:
Is it made from curiosity, not ambition?
Referring to her acting experience, Abigail says that if you go into an acting career and act out of ambition alone, it can create such bitterness that acting becomes impossible. She says, “You kind of have to let that all go and just play.”
Did I make it out of compassion for myself and others?
Staying in tune with her own needs — physical, mental, emotional — is instrumental to Abigail’s ability to exercise compassion toward herself. This is true any time she decides to share information from her life with her audience. “If I’m disclosing a bunch of personal stuff in my videos, I always make sure that I have processed those feelings and I understand them, so that I’m not just dumping my raw emotions on camera,” she says. “That kind of thing does get a good response from the audience… but it’s not sustainable.”
To exercise compassion toward others, Abigail chooses to never say anything bad about anyone specifically. “Even if I do critique an argument, I will always try to be as even-handed as I can… to show my audience that even if this idea is really ‘out there’ and really bizarre, perhaps even immoral, this is how a human being can come to believe it.”
Is it my unique creative vision?
The temptation to imitate or even replicate what someone else has done can be strong, but Abigail has a particular way to ward off insecurity. “Sometimes, I imagine that my inner creative voice is a tiny old lady that lives in the woods,” she says. “I go to her and ask, ‘Do you have anything for me?’ And she’ll go, ‘Yes, here’s the pages,’ or ‘Here’s the deck for the new series we’re going to pitch.’ But I find if I go to her, and I’m angry, then she doesn’t open the door.” Abigail says she finds that approaching her creative voice with openness and curiosity instead of rigidity yields a better end result for both her audience and herself.
Own your missteps
What happens when you’ve established personal criteria for your creative projects and then don’t meet them? Making missteps is a totally normal and healthy part of the creative process — and a way to learn and grow. Trying new things, doing your best, and resolving to be open and willing to learn from your audience and inner creative voice (however you might imagine it) when something doesn’t go quite right has the potential to help you to develop and evolve.
For instance, while doing research for a recent Philosophy Tube video, Abigail weighed whether it made sense to attribute one talking point to a philosopher, who was known for having some particularly negative views about a marginalized group, or to leave out his name altogether. After some thought, Abigail decided to include his point without naming him or mentioning his negative views. But when some of her audience members watched the video, they wrote to her saying that they were part of the marginalized group in question, and they were disappointed that details about the philosopher and his views on their group weren’t covered. “I thought, ‘I haven’t made that out of maximal compassion for others,’” Abigail says. “I should have found a way [to include the philosopher’s name and his negative views] even if it would’ve required a little bit more work.”
In a follow-up live stream, Abigail thanked her audience for writing in and for speaking up. Their reactions echoed her values to make things out of compassion. So, during the times when you find yourself off course, remembering your convictions can help you find your way again and keep going.
Cut out distractions
It’s easy to lose focus on your creative endeavors when so many different things are vying for your attention. Doubt can creep in whether you’re working on marketing, ideation, analytics, or something else. That’s why it’s crucial to take a step back at regular intervals, quiet outside voices, and just enjoy the act of creation.
To handle stress, overstimulation, and burnout, Ben started picking one day a week and completely switching off all of his devices. (For him, it made sense to choose the slowest day of the week for social media engagement for this.) Without all the noise, these tech breaks turned out to be highly creative and fluid periods — the purest form of his creative practice, Ben says — that also did wonders for his well-being and happiness. In this sweet spot, his mental health and creativity work together best. He can relax and clear his mind — so much so that he even found himself not immediately going back to his social media the next day.
The effects aren’t only helpful for his work, he says, but also for his overall attitude toward himself — and others — making him more appreciative and less judgmental of people. “The moment I went online, I would go on social media and I’d see another artist that occupied a space that I felt I could be in,” he says. “And the feeling there was super toxic. I’d take that back to the studio and go, ‘What I can make that’ll get me to make what that guy’s got?’” He found it was an uncomfortable, envy-filled place to be when trying to create. Now, he can see what others are doing and appreciate it without feeling the pressure to match them.
When you hit a wall, switch gears
If your creative practice doubles as a livelihood, your foundation is most likely built on perseverance. But “perseverance” can mean more than just pushing through; it can mean pausing, imagining a totally different path forward, and diversifying the ways you fill up your creative fuel tank and feed your primary practice. As Ben says, “You can’t just create all the time.”
Knowing when to step away — whether for a quick break (like a walk around the block) or to completely scrap an idea and start afresh — can be a meaningful way to reset and see your projects in a new light. “For years I used to tell people, just fight through it,” Ben says. But, he’s found that pausing, rather than battling onwards, can feel more fruitful, especially when facing feelings of burnout. “I found it was better to either walk away completely and do something radically different."
So, when trying to write lyrics that just aren’t coming to him, Ben doesn’t double down, panic, or start beating himself up. Instead, he shifts his attention to something that calls for a completely different mindset and set of skills. “It’s nice to just sit and mindlessly tap on drums and try to make a beat,” he says, “and I won’t go back to the lyrics for a while.”
Doubt doesn’t necessarily go away — it might just morph into different forms. To move through doubt, try simply staying the course. “You fail a bunch, and you survive a bunch,” Abigail says, “and then, you keep trying to succeed a bunch… and you just sort of get used to it, really.”
While the constant feedback loop from his audience, in many ways, has been a gift, Ben stresses the importance of ignoring external forces in order to get honest about his own vision. “It’s all about having… a strong connection with yourself before you go out with whatever you’re creating,” he says. “If you don’t have a great conversation internally with you, then as soon as all that static comes in, then you completely lose focus.” But if you can get your self-talk on a positive, uplifting track, you’ll likely not only feel better on a personal level, your creative endeavors may take on a new and exciting quality that your audience can feel, too.
For more ideas for dealing with doubt, listen to the audio recording and read the transcript for Hot Topics: Doubt. To participate in future discussions and events like this one, sign up for Patreon's next live session.