There can be a real temptation among creatives to take on every project offered. While I certainly endorse stretching yourself creatively and learning new things there is also a lot to be gained by saying no to things. A lot of it comes down to knowing yourself, your abilities, your desires, etc. Say you’re a visual artist. That is a really broad category, but to the average person, if they hear you’re an artist they assume you can do anything from photorealism to abstract art with a great level of proficiency. They’ll ask you to do anything art related and assume you can just pull it off. Maybe you can, but for the majority of us, even in our own fields we have levels of strength and weakness. In the process of trying to build a better life, there is often a need to specialize. After all, if you’re building a brand (and if your brand is nothing more than what you’re known for, which is what it is) the last thing you’ll want to be known for is mediocrity. It is far better to specialize in that which you do best, than to become known as a jack of all trades, master of none. If you’re not sure, it’s probably best to say no. After all there are only so many hours in a day, why would you devote that limited time to something that is bound to be unsatisfactory.
Of course there is another side to this. You may jump out of your field of expertise and knock it out of the part. Your natural ability carries the day and you create a winner. There’s just one problem. You didn’t enjoy it. Maybe you even hated every minute of it. Now all of the sudden, you have this amazing piece of work out there and there are others who want you do more. What are you going to do? Keep on doing work you hate just because people want it and it pays. That is the antithesis of the better life we are trying to create.
So why do we take on projects that we should be saying no to?
1. Money. There is always a real temptation to do something just to pay the bills and I get that. I’ve done it too. Of course in the process I have also robbed myself of the time to do some things that I could do really wonderfully, things where I really could have been successful.
2. Fear. We thing things like “What if this is the best I will ever get?” “What if I’m missing a great opportunity?” “What if I reject this and then I never get to work in my field?” Something related is better than nothing. No, for the most part, something related lets you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, wishing you had the time to do what you really want to do. Any sentence that starts off with the words “what if” is still in the realm of imagination and fear is often imagination misused. Sometimes we all have to do what we have to do, but don’t let fear keep you from being great.
3. External pressures. How many creative people, or just people in general have been told to pick something practical? “You’ll never make a living as an_________.” So instead we lapse into mediocrity rather than being what we were intended to be. Hard work and determination can take a person very far. Sometimes those people who think they’re looking out for us, are really holding us back. For goodness sake, evaluate yourself and look at your options and opportunities but don’t give up because someone sees your dream as impractical.
4. Education. In the U.S. at least, we have an education problem. The problem is in a world increasingly ruled by specialists, we are trying to create a world full of generalists. The problem is no one is good at everything. Think about it. When you were in school, wasn’t more time devoted to your weaknesses, i.e. making you better at the stuff you’re bad at. And what was the cost? Taking time away from developing what you’re already really good at. Why would we do that? Why not expand on a person’s strengths? Now, yes, I realize that there are some basic skills that everyone needs to know, but eventually we ought to be able to see where a person excels and try to push them toward it, toward greatness. After all, when we gain a level of success, we can always hire someone to cover our weaknesses. Success is found in our strengths. Don’t be a generalist. Find something you do very well, find the market for it and work hard to become the best you can be.
Creating a better life, is not always about money, but it is about being the best you can be. A huge part of that is knowing yourself. After all, if you don’t know yourself, how can you even know what a better life is.