The Creative Self and the Burden of Inadequacy

I believe that our autodidactism and creativity go hand-in-hand. We are creative because we learn and we learn because we are creative. Our creative and learning capabilities in turn depend on our ability across three dimensions: cognition, social integration and emotional regulation. Our education, upbringing and professional training & engagements predominantly emphasise developing the cognitive skills. While social integration is a popular catchphrase, all systems tend to focus only on the extreme ends of the efficient individual or the conforming mob. The social dimension is mostly superfluous, since in groups and gatherings we tend to become rather self protective and, consequently, preoccupied with not offending another. A general disclaimer that I offer my students and participants of my workshops is, ‘We are all learning to dance here, so don’t worry too much about stepping on someone’s toes or getting stepped on yours. Be generous in offering the benefit of doubt and try to be free of any intent to hurt. Otherwise, let alone dancing, we won’t even be able to move in this space. ‘However, this is far easier said than done. I feel that it is incredibly hard work to continually encourage and forgive oneself. It’s much easier to become a workaholic: be in the name of art, work, business or society. The creative process is fuelled by a strong sense of inadequacy whether with respect to the context or to the self. Several inadequacies burn the fire of my desire for this program: my dissatisfaction with the prevalent forms of my contexts of architectural practice, performances and their venues, pedagogy across disciplines, and social congregation as well as the need to fulfil my sense of identity, relevance and accomplishment. While it does seem like I am placing too much at stake, the ball-game tells us that there’s almost always already too much at stake in our seemingly most trivial of engagements. I also feel that my emotional investment in the program is what makes it an ambitious art practice rather than a strategic professional project. However, the emotional high, fired by inadequacies, casts a long shadow of expectations. Many of these expectations are at odds with each other – several big and small shadows dancing or wrestling with each other: expectations of diverse capabilities with conscientiousness, of passion with consistency, curiosity with caution, of flights of imagination with gravity of pragmatism, of emotional expressiveness with balanced self regulation and so on and so forth. If the tussle between the expectations is considered a fight, then one shadow will be a winner and the other a loser or both will end up exhausted. On the other hand, if you consider it a dance then, unless very well-trained, one of the expectations will end up dominating the other.

edited screenshots of despair & isolation from the participants’ integrated performance video

I largely wear my emotions on my sleeves while engaging with students/ participants of my course/ workshops. This, I believe, helps keep them animated and attentive, while encouraging vulnerability. However, throughout the course of this program I worked very hard and practised self-restraint for the following reasons:

  • The participants’ processes needed to be buffered from my influence beyond a few basic principles. 
  • Considering that the participants have volunteered to participate in the programme without directly evident benefit to their professional or academic career, their agency needed to be encouraged to as far a degree as possible. 
  • In professional courses, students at times tend to become passive or complacent, since the course they are undergoing seems like a compulsion rather than a choice. They require nudging and pushing in such situations. Here, I anticipated the motivation to be self-propelled or mutually driven. 
  • Encouraging each participant’s agency would elicit a diversely unique response from them in their work – particularly the design of a place for performance. 
  • I conceived this program as a counterpoint to the closed environment of professional education such that the participants could exercise their privilege as adult learners without the pressure of assessments, and that they could engage with each other freely without mediation from an authority-figure, without the compulsion of course-induced group-work.

Although I can confidently say that I managed to keep my temperament largely in balance, I don’t have as much confidence in claiming that the above mentioned objectives have been fulfilled. In my defence I offer the disclaimer that I and the participants were working against two to three decades or more of their conditioning and patterns. Four weeks of residency is a short time to change anything. I do hope though that the participants have taken notice of the habits that interfere with their growth and that they begin to challenge them. 

I have observed four distinct patterns that have interfered with the participants’ potential of a rising satisfaction with the outcome of their hard work:

  1. Missing Passion: lack of initiative; inability to dive deep or persevere; disinterested in the body of things and their making; limited curiosity in self-expression and premature disengagement
  2. Misplaced Attention Seeking Tendency: unmet emotional needs getting bundled up into anger towards the self, often mis-directed against an authority figure who is also expected to fulfil these needs without them being expressed explicitly; all this upheaval eventually straitjacketed by sulking silence.
  3. Mistrust of Ambiguity: seeking either/ or positions and unable to hold and/ both possibilities; denial or ignorance of layered/ nuanced potential; any critique leading to a noise-dive into the guilt trip of self-inadequacy. 
  4. Fight/ Fight Paradox: blazing flights of imagination confronted by excessive self criticism; perceptive positioning disarmed by guilt of the violence of intervention; sensitive engagements with others disrupted by indifferent isolation; super-saturated with self-criticism, forcing others into advocating for one’s ideas.

All four inherent conflicts of the creative practitioners and learners lead to inaction and dissatisfaction. While the first one results from a clinical and indifferent distance between the self and one’s work, the latter three emerge from a collapse of one’s identity into their work. I have no antidote for the poison of indifference; however, for those inflicting suffering on themselves on account of falling short of the imagined goals, I recommend creating a safe distance between themselves and their work. The failure of our work is not our failure. The shortcomings in our processes or not our shortcoming, simply because while work and processes end, we are a continual work in progress. If death is the ultimate end, then there is nothing to lament when one’s gone. Or, if one believes in reincarnation, then there are never-ending opportunities of betterment until nirvana.

The reason most of us intertwine our identities with our work is because of catharsis. In the isolated individualism of the industrial and post-industrial societies, work happens to be our closest continual companion: weathering our grief, joy, exuberance and turmoil with us. A personification of this companion leads us to get infatuated or fall in love or get obsessed with our work, which we see as a reflection and image of ourselves. This condition is perpetuated by the pairing of hard work with success. Perhaps the expression of our deepest emotions in the stories, characters and situations of the pre-industrial context led to a catharsis of release. Today, however, we find ourselves unable to let go of this companion and catharsis has become a trap rather than a release.

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