Embarrass Yourself

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

We choose creative work not only because we love it; we also have good taste. Naturally, as we start making creative work, we see the distance between what we call good and what we’re making. The fear dawns on us: What if we make something bad?

This is the gap between taste and ability that everyone starts with. As broadcaster and producer Ira Glass says, “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. The work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

The quantity of work is essential. We’ll make mistakes, pretend we know what we’re doing, say the wrong things, imitate people, and find new ways of working that we swore we’d never do.

We need to set the expectation with ourselves that we will probably look foolish as we make our early work. In fact, we need to lean into it and accept it.

There’s also another reason we’ll look foolish, even as we start to emerge as artists and creators. “To the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction,” poet Allen Ginsberg said. He and conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., were debating the Vietnam War. Ginsberg pulled a harmonium up, sat it on his lap, and sang a Hare Krishna song. Buckley Jr. smiled the smile of someone uncertain of how to react. As Allen sang seriously, Buckley Jr.’s smile disappeared, and he moved a finger over his mouth as if to silence himself. Unwilling to offer his approval, Buckley Jr. laughed after the song, “That was the most un-Hare Kirshna I’ve ever heard.”

In a TED Talk, actor and director Ethan Hawke described Ginsberg returning to New York City after this performance to his friends—his fellow Beats—rebuking him for the song. He looked like an idiot, they said, and the whole country was making fun of him.

Ginsberg responded, “That’s my job, and I’m going to play the fool.”

The ensuing embarrassment, shame, or even humiliation, that comes from being made to feel stupid can feel overwhelming and intolerable. Our minds evolve to protect us from this emotional pain, as well as the ensuing real-world consequences. Yet in the early stages of creative work, you must be willing to look foolish and vulnerable. You must be willing to look silly, and to try. You’ll also learn not to identify yourself with an idea or moment in which you appeared foolish to someone else.

So, do something embarrassing. Express something honest, something positive, that you think may be silly.

As filmmaker David Lynch wrote, “Keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole.” Stay focused on the work and what you want to say. Don’t be afraid of how people may or may not react—be okay with making them laugh at you, not with you. Know that in the quiet hour when they can’t sleep, your truth may come into their mind, and they’ll wonder what it all really meant.

Make a Risky Version of Your Work

One of the best things you can do with and for your creative practice is to get outside your comfort zone and exercise your capacity for creative risk. Think of it like the director’s cut of a film. As Marina Abramović wrote in Walk Through Walls, “I always question artists who are successful in whatever they do. I think what that means is that they’re repeating themselves and not taking enough risks.”

“Safe” means creating something you’re most familiar with, that is, your “style.” Making something risky might mean dialing your style up to the maximum, or flipping it to be the complete opposite. Or it might just mean doing something completely out of the blue—that exceeds my capacity for suggestion.

For example, my friends told me that writing without quotes makes for better writing. This had paralyzed me for a bit—until I decided that I’d eventually just create two versions of this draft of the book, one with no quotes and one with all quotes. Similarly, I’d been stuck on structure, until I realized that I could just create a different version of the book with a completely different structure, perhaps a more essay-related format. I had no idea when I released this how it was going to look—and that was okay. That was how it was supposed to be.

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