Silencing the Anxiety Beast: On Success and Schooling

For the past several months I have been staring down the wailing and terrified beast that resides within my head, trying in turns to calm it, to reason with it, or to simply scare it off.  But it is a creature that cannot understand reason, and as it already lives in constant terror, there’s not a lot I can do to scare it further.  I’ve been at a loss.  It’s hard to enjoy the prime of my life and the objectively excellent situation I find myself in when there’s a beast living in my head that will. not. stop. howling.

I have been fortunate, I remind it.  I planned, I saved, I structured my life in such a way that I was able to let go of a full-time job that was providing little more than knowing what was going to be in a paycheck at the end of the month.  I traded the scope-creep and what was often at least 50 hours of my week for flexibility and work that paid better.  Less work, sure, but more worth the time it cost.  I didn’t lose employer provided health insurance because I never had it.  I’ve only had to dip into my safety net once- for the holidays.  I have an excellent support network, an incredible and encouraging partner, and bright plans for the future.  I even taught myself to enjoy hard-boiled eggs!  I am doing fine.  I am incredibly lucky.  I still have time.

But because the beast does not listen to reason, none of this matters.  So in my quest to find new ways to soothe or distract it, I have come to a realization.  The beast is not truly afraid of destitution and starvation, or even of the potential need to once again return to the traditional 9-5 existence.  These are just the flags it’s waving around to hide the true core of its terror:  I do not deserve this.  I am not worthy.  I am lazy, foolish, selfish, a drain on society.  That if I am going to be so irresponsible as to leave a life of sitting at someone else’s desk for at least 8 hours a day whether I’m needed or not, I’d better have some damn good results to show for it.  I’d better turn into a success.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a real definition of what success is.

My life plan has largely been the nebulous “make art, sell the art, teach other people how to art.”  This hasn’t…not worked.  I do well at the majority of shows I vend, and teaching supports my eating habits nicely.

The trouble is that once I removed the 40+ hour workweek structure from my schedule, I no longer have clear units of measurements to prove to my terrified brain beast that “yes, we did enough today.”  I set goals and make to-do lists and work toward them, but I have the terrible habit of constantly shifting the goalposts and therefore end every day feeling like I haven’t accomplished nearly enough.

I have pretty deeply internalized some unhealthy lessons and habits from the 9-5 office job setting, particularly my first and longest-held job at the doomed digital marketing agency (basically a content farm).  Even with the knowledge that these principles are flawed, if not entirely false, my brain cannot seem to completely let go of the following toxic measurements of worth:

  1. Quantity and speed is more important than quality
  2. If you do not have a large number of accomplishments to show at the end of the day, you’re doing a bad job and should probably be disciplined.
  3. You have to show up for at least 8 hours a day, even if there’s not 8 hours of stuff that actually needs doing today and even if you showed up for 12 hours the day before.
  4. Even illness needs to be heavily justified before it can be used as an excuse not to work

So yeah, I have some things to fix before I can actually enjoy a creative career, which doesn’t have the same goalposts or measurements of accomplishment as typing in a lot of really surface-level fluff content into the internet so someone else can get rich.

I think one of my biggest problems is that I never stepped back and really asked myself what I actually want out of a creative career.  What would success look like, not to the faceless mass of society, but to me?  Since I did not define what it looks like, the crappy toxic job definitions of success still live in my brain, years after watching the crappy toxic company get shut down by its buyers.  So this is the first thing I need to figure out.

The second thing I need to do is go back to school.

As someone who thrived in an academic setting only to find that it has very little translation to what the real world is like (and boy was I not prepared), the thought of returning to school has always been sort of a comforting and wistful daydream in the back of my head.  The expectations were simple.  You showed up.  You studied.  You took tests.  You did projects.  When a thing was done, it was done, unlike a lot of adulthood where you have to show up and do the same thing again the next day and there’s no sign of stopping.

There was growth, learning, and challenge.  There were clear goals.  You weren’t trading your life for money, you were investing your time to become better at what you’re doing.  This was the time when I felt the most freely creative, even if my skills weren’t yet where I wanted them to be.  This is the mindset I need to recapture to fall in love with creativity again, rather than just trying to be a “successful businessartist,” which is a sort of soulless thing to be.

Now, traditional art school is a pricey investment and I have no intention of burdening my career and feeding my anxiety monster with a mountain of debt.  So when I say that I’m going back to school, I don’t mean that I’m trading in my office desk for a desk in a brick school building.  There are enough online resources to serve as professors, and I have been around the block enough to see at least some of the weak areas in my own work I want to improve upon.

So I will be designing my own college curriculum.

I’ll still be teaching and doing my freelance work, but I will also be taking on “classes” that I will design following a traditional college semester structure.  I plan to build myself a course catalog exploring the areas I want to improve upon (facial expressions, character design, shapes theory, etc), create a syllabus, and show up for classes in my own living room every week.  I will have projects, and I will have homework.  But the goal is not going to be to “build my business” or “make many dollars,” it is just to learn and get better.  Maybe the other two things will come about, maybe they won’t, but it really doesn’t matter.

So instead of taking out student loans, I’m going to loan myself the time.  And maybe, just maybe, this will be enough to silence the beast.

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