ask polly

‘How Do I Live Like an Artist?’

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Dear Polly,

I’ve really been digging your claim of “artist” as identity. I’m always in awe of all the artists who write to you, who have a difficult time accepting themselves and being their true selves out in the open. Let me just say, I wish I were an artist by trade! I can’t think of anything more mesmerizing than believing that your feelings and self-expression are worthy and putting them into the world.

I, on the other hand, have a programming background, which I do not enjoy. Now I do clinical research, and I am on the technical side of things. I know my truest strengths are my interpersonal skills, and I am now trying to become a clinician. I am embarrassed that my interpersonal skills are my strengths, and sometimes wish I were meant to create. That’s what’s cool to me. How awesome is it to put all your energies into a tangible thing? I know I am here to connect, to problem solve, and to guide others in the ways a clinician does. But the part of me that has always wanted to be different and special and interesting is saying, “Really? That’s all you have to offer? How boring.”

I’m aware that I’m obsessed with the one thing that I feel I am opposite of because I have a hard time loving myself. So Polly, I don’t identify as an artist because that’s not what I do, but I think and feel like one. I have a rich imagination and feel my emotions so incredibly that sometimes they suffocate me. I love to understand myself and others, and I am always asking WHY. I’m sure a lot of your readers are wondering, “How do I live like an artist when I don’t create art for a living?” How do I channel my emotions and thoughts into something, even if I can’t do that all the time and my job sometimes depends on putting those things to the side? My binary mind (thanks to my computing training) is telling me you’re either an artist who creates or you’re not an artist. I think about this all the time and haven’t made much progress on wrapping my head around it. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Aspiring Human Who Would Like to Live Like an Artist


Living like an artist can be as simple as finding a project that inspires and invigorates you, and it can be as complex as building a whole new relationship to yourself and the world around you. For me, taking on the identity of artist is a way of allowing the messy work of digging for the truth — the dark, frightening, funny, brilliant, delicious truth — to take front and center in my life. Living like an artist means letting my inner monster out of the closet and letting her get in the way, slow things down, glue up my gears, break everything apart, humble me, strip off my pretensions and defenses, and then, maybe, rebuild me, speed everything up, and make my universe more colorful, exciting, obscene, absurd — whatever it wants to be in that moment.

All of which probably sounds wildly inconvenient and hopelessly abstract. And that’s accurate: Becoming an artist, owning that title like the pretentious pain in the ass that I am, has loosened up some of the hard boundaries in my life and blurred previous principles around How I Should Be and How Other People Should Be. Instead of pointing myself at concrete accomplishments and exterior rewards, I’m firmly pointed at three things: the truth, the joy of creation, and the satisfaction of deep human connections.

How does any of this nonsense apply to you, Aspiring Human? You already say that you have a hard time loving yourself, you have a rich imagination, your emotions are strong to the point of overwhelming you, and you’re on a constant quest to understand yourself and others. On top of all of that, your interpersonal skills are your biggest strength — which, by the way, isn’t remotely embarrassing! Strong interpersonal skills inspire awe and even envy in anyone who has enough experience to recognize how rare they are.

Which brings us to the first rule of thinking and living like an artist: 1. Believe in what you are and what you have. Approach your preexisting affinities and strengths with an almost religious fervor and passion. Whatever makes you a tiny bit different, whatever feels a bit easier for you than for other people, whatever you enjoy a little more — maybe even enjoy so much that it embarrasses you? That’s the stuff you have to take the most seriously, treat with the most care, and protect from a world packed with people who want to tell you those things make you weird or boring or unimportant or a misfit. Living like an artist is all about standing up for whatever you have, even when it looks like a can full of old rubber bands and three rusty nails to you. Someone might’ve told you that stuff was junk, but it’s not. It’s precious and important.

Here’s an example: A stranger can say three words to me and I suddenly know a lot about that person. If I observe the person among other people, five or six other clear impressions of how they function, what they want, and who they are behind the veil of what they want other people to see will spring into my mind. That’s a lot of information to take in when you’re just meeting someone new in a social setting and trying to seem normal to them. When I was younger, it tripped me up and I felt like I needed to put it somewhere. So my favorite thing to do was to drink too much and wander around meeting new people and informing them of who they were.

This was not the best application for my skills. I offended people everywhere I went, and I woke up feeling ashamed of myself (a sensation that leads to more drinking!). After a solid decade of making enemies, though, I figured out that this was also the main skill I used in my writing career: an ability to draw a line from a person, a trend, a cultural phenomenon, an artifact, to some human impulse or emotion or shared pathology. It still took years to embrace these talents and also to stop wielding them in ways that only upset other people and embarrassed me.

What’s crazy is that often, if you have a habit of upsetting other people or stepping on their toes, there could be some unique strength lying underneath the shame and turmoil of that.

Which brings us to the second rule of thinking like an artist: 2. Cultivate curiosity about the truth, no matter how ugly it is. This is what makes art so soothing and also so exciting: Instead of feeling afraid of who you really are or who other people really are or how terrifyingly bad the whole world is, you can move toward the things you fear the most and gather information about them. Let’s say you discover a new weakness in yourself: You move toward it like it’s a brilliant light in the dark. Or what if you learn that someone close to you has betrayed you? You get curious about what made that possible. You might develop an interest in the effects of it at first (“I feel hurt! You fucked me over!”) but you move from there to the particular folds of the perceptions and choices that led another person to treat you carelessly. Or, your pain takes you in some other direction that you never would’ve predicted, and you follow that trail of bread crumbs to brand-new discoveries about the world.

Living like an artist allows you to unearth infinite new worlds in the tiniest drop of water. You look beyond what’s apparent, you push dusty old stories about who you are and what you like out of the way, you deconstruct the obvious and investigate the mysterious. It’s a morally agnostic position, ultimately: You stop viewing every action through the black and white lens of judgment and enter the scientist’s mind, peering through the microscope at vast legions of microbial demons or squinting through the telescope at a seemingly infinite sky, filthy with colorful celestial wonders. You open your mind, your heart, and your eyes as wide as they’ll go in order to take in the world in all of its ragged, wretched glory.

Writing that last sentence made me tear up for no reason whatsoever, which leads us to the third rule of living like an artist: 3. Stop doing battle with yourself and welcome whatever comes up every day. When you cry, you don’t think, “My God, what’s wrong with me?” You think, “I must be onto something, here! I’m getting in the zone!” When you get angry or you feel like a total fucking loser out of the blue, you sit there and sort through the wreckage. Your particular battles, Aspiring Human, will probably include feeling stupid for resolving to live like an artist or to call yourself an artist inside your head. You’ll tell yourself, “I’m just trying to seem more special or more interesting than I really am.”

You’ll know you’re starting to think like an artist when you sit with this for a little longer and, instead of giving yourself shit about it, you ask, “Why do I care so much about being interesting?” and “What is the fate of the uninteresting, inside my imagination? What do I believe happens to boring people? Are these stories I tell myself accurate?” and “Who told me I was boring?” and “What if I am boring? Can I take the risk of just being who I am instead of always telling myself it’s a shitty way to be?” Refusing to do battle with the things you fear and welcoming whatever comes up means pulling a wide range of hideous emotions and long-held assumptions and bad messages out of your closet and trying everything on for size to see how it fits.

So that brings us to: 4. Become what you fear. Are you afraid of being boring? Walk out the door and be the living embodiment of dead air. Are you afraid of seeming like an irrelevant old man? Go sit on a park bench and own your inner creaky old geezer. Are you afraid of appearing desperate for love? Walk around for a week telling everyone you meet, “I am absolutely determined to fall in love in the next year. I need more love in my life and I’m going to find it.”

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re fighting against until you fully surrender to it. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to explore the contours of your experience and your desires in any real way without experimenting and pushing your own boundaries and turning out all the lights so you have to feel your way in the dark. For you in particular, I think becoming very dull might feel emancipatory. You have great interpersonal skills, which means you’re probably a good listener and also a very focused people pleaser. You’ve probably always been a social overachiever: You live to serve! Powering all of that down and just showing up empty-handed might really redraw your notions of who you are and what you should be. I think you’re likely to discover that “interesting” and “special” are two traits that pale in comparison to the simple grace of just being present: showing up, eyes open, heart open, with nothing at all to say, no preloaded program or story, just wide open space for whatever comes next.

Which brings us to 5. Welcome uninvited guests into your heart and mind. That means that even when you wake up feeling irritable and you can’t work on the project you were sure was everything just the day before, you allow that frustration to crawl into a soft bed in your mind’s guest room and take a little nap. Then gluttony comes by and steals a bag of dill-pickle-flavored potato chips and eats them standing up in the kitchen, and you let gluttony do that. Then self-hatred kicks down the door and says you look stupid just waiting around for something to happen, like a idiot. Then fear creeps in and tells you that all of the time you’ve spent cultivating your artistic lens on the world is worth nothing, it’s a waste, and you’re too boring for this way of life.

Let this unruly crowd trash your house. Don’t tell them to leave. Don’t tell them to change. Because once the entire house is a wreck, you’ll start straightening up, feeling shitty all the while, and joy will wander in.

I don’t know what joy sounds like to you, but joy tells me this: You’re exactly where you need to be. Thank you for following the devastating, scary clues that led you here. Thank you for feeling this magic across your skin, behind your eyes, inside the cage of your teeth. Trusting this path is your whole job. You don’t need to get anywhere. This is enough.

Trusting magic will get easier as you: 6. Study other artists. Observe how they thought about themselves, how they nurtured their talents, how they moved through the world and talked to others about their work and the joy it brought them. Understanding how fiercely an artist protects their worldview and their process and their identity, and how passionately they speak about what they do, will help you. It will even help you to notice how GODDAMN BASIC most of their ideas are. I’ve been rediscovering a bunch of surrealists over the past year, and refamiliarizing myself with them was, at first, a little disappointing. They were all saying the same pumpkin-spice bullshit about blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy, yadda yadda yadda. My superiority complex kicked in and told me they were mansplaining little blowhards with delusions of grandeur.

Artists are, at their core, BASIC, because the outlines of the human condition are pretty simple. Humans want love and connection, but things get in our way. We want to feel special and we don’t feel special enough. We want to feel important and visible and we live in a world that tricks us into thinking we’re important and visible while it picks our pockets day after day. And eventually, we learn to pick each other’s pockets, thereby assuming the shape and texture of the culture that surrounds us.

The human condition is the most basic bitch in the universe. It’s also devastating, and absolutely tragic. It’s also beautiful. Like an actual basic bitch, there are so many things to love about the paradoxes of life — unself-consciously, with gusto, with compassion. Living like an artist means taking this scalding hot cup of coffee that is the human condition and enhancing it with your own unique version of pumpkin spice. You figure out what you have and you turn it into a delicious, exciting flavor, and then people taste it and they say GODDAMN I LOVE THIS and then later they say THIS IS BORING and after a while they say PEOPLE WHO LIKE THIS ARE BORING and then you, the artist, become a fucking cliché and then you become a meme and that’s when everyone associates you with something cheap and dumb. That’s the life of the artist: You’re special, then you’re a meme, and then you feel bad, and then you’re dead.

I know that sounds a little dark, but that’s an important part of seeing the world through an artist’s eyes: You don’t move away from what looks true to you. You don’t bend everything into a happy shape for your own comfort. You work with what’s actually there. Once you invite the darkness and also the giddy delight into your picture, it feels richer and more satisfying.

And ultimately, it’s okay that your work is misunderstood or lost or stolen. It’s okay if no one understands or cares. Because what matters the most is pleasing yourself and impressing yourself and moving yourself. Yes, you’re making a gift for other people, ultimately, but the first step is to make your gift exciting to you and you alone. That process is made of pure joy. It cannot possibly matter how people see you or whether or not you’ll be embraced tomorrow or decades from now. When you start monitoring those things too closely, you lose the thread. What do you want here? Is this about glory? Of course not. It’s about breathing in the joy of this moment as deeply as you humanly can.

Don’t tell me that’s impossible. Don’t say the world is too much of a shit heap for joy, that joy is selfish, that art is pointless. You’re just wrong about that. We all need joy to survive in this world. We don’t stand a chance of saving it if we can’t find joy here first. So that’s our final rule for living like an artist: 7. Pursue joy at all costs. Joy is your guide, your first priority, your best friend, your master, and your servant, all rolled into one. We don’t have that long to feel good. Find a way to feel good. That’s the central commandment of living like an artist. Find your own weird path to joy. Fuck interesting and special. Fuck making something perfect that other people deem impressive or admirable. Just find your version of pumpkin motherfucking spice. If you love how it tastes, that’s all that matters.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘How Do I Live Like an Artist?’