Seriously, don’t play small. This has been on my mind as a blog post topic for a while and it’s something I think we need to talk about as makers, artists, artisans, as humans.
I used to be expert at playing small, so I get it. I get the inclination to not put yourself out there, not be too visible, not be overly confident. It’s natural to be overly self-effacing, isn’t it? I’d argue that no, it’s not natural. It’s the result of conditioning, especially for many women. If you come from an upbringing that involved any kind of hardship or trauma, your inclination to be invisible may be even stronger than average. But I’m here to implore you: don’t play small. You have way too much to offer the world, a world that needs precisely what you may be downplaying in yourself.
I teach a beginner design class called, “Yes, You Are & Yes, You Can.” (In fact, this class is coming right up on November 16th, 2019 if you’d like to not play small with me here at the Parris House.) I gave it that long-ish name because I hear – over and over and over again from so, so many women – “I’m not talented…imaginative…gifted” and “I can’t draw…design…create.” YES.YOU.ARE.AND.YES.YOU.CAN.
If any of you struggle with this concept, let me recommend to you Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic and also The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. These two books are deep encouragement for the soul struggling with self-belief, with seeing possibility, with loving ourselves and everything we have to offer. They seek to not merely silence our harping inner critic, but to raise out of that silence our inner advocate. If you haven’t yet found your inner advocate, who is your most important ally, surround yourself for now with external advocates who will help you find the one inside.
“Find your tribe” is a terribly common cliche, but the fact is that we know instinctively who builds us up and who tears us down. Part of not playing small is surrounding ourselves with those who want to raise us up. Those people are not obliged to be head over heels about everything you create. Sometimes they may offer constructive critiques because they want to see you get even better than you already are at what you do; this is the mark of a caring and valuable mentor. What they will never do, however, is suggest that you “can’t,” “shouldn’t,” or “couldn’t.”
Not playing small looks different for each person who decides to not play small. There is no ironclad definition here. Not playing small means getting outside of your comfort zone, stretching your usual boundaries, taking one single step beyond what you’re comfortable with. Here’s a good test for not playing small: does the step you’re about to take give you a smidgen of impostor syndrome? (Note: the most successful people on the planet report experiencing impostor syndrome. Having impostor syndrome does not mean you’re actually an impostor at all. It means your conditioning is telling you that somehow you haven’t earned your place in whatever it is you’re achieving.) Does the beyond-your-comfort-zone thing you’re about to do fill you with an unsettling combination of wild excitement and abject terror? Believe it or not, that’s my litmus test for a great opportunity. If I am simultaneously excited and terrified I know it’s going to be great.
For one person, not playing small may mean finally taking that art class they’ve been putting off for years. For another it might be reaching out to a prestigious gallery or venue and pitching their work. For yet another it may be simply facing that perpetually discouraging family member and saying, “I really like what I’m doing. I’m going to keep doing it.” While I believe not playing small yields phenomenal and tangible results over time, that’s not the point. Let me explain that last thing a little more.
When I taught at the Squam Art Workshops in 2015 and 2016, I was delighted to discover that the director at that time, Elizabeth Duvivier, was all about process. I had said to her, “I don’t think the students will be able to finish a 12″ x 12″ hooked project in the time we have with them.” No matter. It wasn’t about finishing the piece right there and then. It was about the process, the discovery, the experience. So what am I saying here? That results don’t matter? No. Results do matter. I know that I have some pretty lofty result-oriented goals for both Parris House Wool Works and my work as an independent artist apart from my company. In fact, I must meet certain sales and income goals to keep my company viable. However, results are not all that matters. If we put unreasonable emphasis on rigid expectations about our results, we might forever fall short in our own estimation, fueling feelings of inadequacy which leads to, you guessed it, playing small.
In an era of selfies and “highlight reel” social media posts, it is easy to equate “not playing small” with the kind of random attention-seeking that we sometimes see on Facebook and Instagram by people hoping to become “influencers.” That is not what it is at all, though. Offering your gifts to the world is not done shotgun style, hoping that something hits the mark or garners the most “likes” and “shares.” Offering your gifts to the world is about looking deeply at who you are, what your gifts are (you have many), and then bringing them to the venues, contexts, and audiences that will both appreciate them and benefit from them. It is not about unfounded bravado or ego. It is about recognizing that you, and everyone else, are here with talent and purpose and that the rest of the world can use that light in their lives.
There are creative women in my general sphere who don’t play small; some of them never have. I had to come to “not playing small” pretty late in life and for that reason I marvel at and admire the people I know who seem to have been born understanding and owning their gifts. However, I have learned that it’s never too late.
Don’t hide your light. Put yourself and your creativity out there. Don’t play small.
Hook what you love. – Beth