Who are you trying to please?

The Gatekeeper, from “Nightmare: The Video Board Game,” the best VHS-based board game of the 1990s.

Are you waiting for someone’s approval to move forward with your creative pursuits?

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about. In the traditional, “professional” career world, you must win permission and acceptance from others each step of the way in order to advance.

If you’re aiming to be a lawyer:

  1. First, get into law school (someone determines your admission).
  2. Next, pass the MPRE, an exam about professional conduct (someone grades your exam).
  3. Next, pass your classes so you can graduate and earn your Juris Doctor (someone determines your ability in each class).
  4. Next, pass the bar exam (someone grades your exam).
  5. Next, become certified as having “good moral character” (someone determines this about you).
  6. Finally, apply for and pay for your state license to practice law (someone approves you and takes your money).

I’m sure I hilariously screwed up some of the details above, but that’s basically the idea. There’s a similarly exhaustive process if you want to be a doctor or nurse. Or a scientist. Or a structural engineer. Or an airline pilot. Or a plumber, for that matter. You go to school, you pass exams, you get licensed, you do a residency, etc. An authority figure signs off on you at every step.

These multiple levels of gatekeeping make sense for these jobs because they’re safeguards. There are serious consequences when you fail at your job as a doctor, lawyer, or airline pilot. More or less objective standards have been built over the centuries in reaction to bad practitioners.

So. Why do we so often treat the creative fields—which are subjective—like they’re the same thing?

Of course I’m talking about writing, because I’m a writer. But I’m also talking about forming a band. Or making an app. Or painting a landscape. Creative pursuits that we, for some reason, think of in the same terms that we use for traditional careers: does an authority figure say I’m good enough?

“I can’t just do that. I need approval/validation. I need to get into this school /  sign with this label / get accepted into this studio / sign with this agent.”

Have I myself fallen into this mindset in the past? Oh, you bet. I was rejected from a dozen different MFA programs. And three dozen literary magazines. I spent years trying to please a publishing authority figure with constant rewrites of my novel manuscript.

Then one day I realized that if I bypassed the authority figures, brought my work directly to an audience, and then failed . . . I wouldn’t cause planes to fall from the sky. I wouldn’t send an innocent person to prison. I wouldn’t cause a bridge to collapse. I wouldn’t cause somebody to die on the operating table. I’d simply fail to connect with my audience. And I could try again.

The stakes were, in fact, low. I should just do it. 

Authority figures do serve a useful purpose in the creative fields. We all have a lot to learn as we master our arts. We need feedback and editors and mentors. But if and when you know you’re ready, and the authority figure(s) of your field don’t seem to be on the same proverbial page as you . . . that may be the time to step out on your own.

Make like Macklemore. Or Amanda Hocking. Or Benjamin Franklin, for that matter. Or the creators of the Elfquest comics.

Sure, you’ll still have people to please. We all have to answer to others if we want to be successful. But those people will not be authority figures—they’ll be your audience. You know, the people you were writing the story or creating the piece of art for in the first place.

Don’t be afraid to fail in front of an audience, either. Planes won’t fall. Nobody will die. And you’ll never be “disbarred” from your art, unless you disbar yourself.

As the motivational author Jeff Goins says, “Stop waiting to be picked.”

BTW, the first part of my four-part novel The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley just came out on Amazon. And it’s getting 5-star reviews so far! Plus it’s, like, under a dollar, by one cent. If you check it out and like it, please leave me a review on Amazon.

Part 2 is coming October 2. But you can actually receive it for free, in advance, right now if you subscribe to my newsletter.

Author: Jeff Deck

Author and administrator of this site.