Stuck? Lose Your Label!

Here’s a useful piece by Austin Kleon on How to Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Chaotic Times.

I like #3 a lot: “Forget the noun, do the verb.”

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

Calling yourself a “writer,” “artist,” “activist,” “scholar,” “entrepreneur,” or any other label can invite procrastination if you use that label perfectionistically. For example, if you think of a writer as someone who is supposed to:

  • write many hours every single day
  • sacrifice everything else to one’s art
  • happily starve / live in a garret
  • be smarter about all things writing-related than anyone in the room (or anywhere!)
  • write fantastically all the time, and,
  • enjoy writing all the time

Then you’re inevitably going to fall short, and feel miserable about it.

Here are some other labels that get people into trouble: “good parent” (if you think “good” means you must sacrifice everything for your kids) and “dutiful child” (if you think “dutiful” means you must do everything your parents ask). In these cases, you should forget the adjective and do the verb!

Needless to say, these kinds of unrealistic, romanticized, grandiose stereotypes are perfectionist. They often appear ridiculous when held up to the light of day, but are common in our media and culture, and so we absorb them nonetheless. Often, we use them to create a kind of “Platonic ideal” in our minds of how we think we should behave, and how our careers should go. We may not even be aware we’ve done that, and yet are constantly comparing ourselves to the ideal—and constantly falling short. (Here are solutions.)

Now, if you use a label purely informationally, the way you might say, “I’m a tooth-flosser,” then no problem. (Unless you take inordinate pride in flossing!)

Instead of labeling, think of yourself as “someone who writes,” and approach all your work—even your “serious” “important” work (oops! more labels!)—with a playful spirit.


  1. Hi Hillary, here are some related quotes that came to my mind when I read your blog post:

    “I have sometimes put myself ahead of my work in my mind and have suffered in consequence. I thought me, me; and I suffered. I thought I was important. I was taught to think that. I was taught: ‘You are important; people are important beyond anything else.’ But thinking that I suffered very much. I thought that I was big and ‘the work’ was small. It is not possible to go on that way.” — Agnes Martin (1992). Writings = Schriften. Winterthur: Kunstmuseum Winterthur/Edition Cantz.

    “It’s easy to imagine that real artists know what they’re doing, and that they—unlike you—are entitled to feel good about themselves and their art. Fear that you are not a real artist causes you to undervalue your work…. But while you may feel you’re just pretending that you’re an artist, there’s no way to pretend you’re making art.” — David Bayles & Ted Orland (1993). Art & fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra.

    “In a world characterized by a conspicuous dearth of arenas for creative activity, such as our own, becoming an artist and creating art will continue to be constituted as extraordinary and exceptional, which is to say bathed in mystique. This mystique, by being complicitous in the process of artistic creation itself, will contaminate it as a matter of course, preventing artists from having both the conviction and the humility to move forward optimally in their work and alienating them from true desire. In identifying, defying, and, most important, undermining the mystique of art and artist by furthering their integration into the fabric of life itself, therefore, perhaps we will see the space of creativity enlarged.” — Mark Philip Freeman (1993). “The conditions of creativity”. In: Finding the muse: a sociopsychological inquiry into the conditions of artistic creativity. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    “A hip lick I heard is, ‘An addict alone is in bad company.’ How true that is! And remember, we are all addicts in the sense that we are addicted to our limited vision of ourselves. Be open to the possibility that rituals can restore your power.” — Kenny Werner (1996). Effortless mastery: liberating the master musician within. New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold Jazz.

    “Today, we may say that experimental art is that act or thought whose identity as art must always remain in doubt. Not only does this hold for anyone who plays with the ‘artist’; it holds especially for the ‘artist’! The experiment is not to possess a secret artistry in deep disguise; it is not knowing what to call it at any time!” — Allan Kaprow (1997). “Just doing”. In: Essays on the blurring of art and life (Revised edition, 2003). Berkeley: University of California Press.

    “Does art have to be your job for you to be an artist? Call yourself whatever the hell you want. Or don’t. Just keep working. Talk less about your identity and do more to live and believe it.” — Danny Gregory (2006). “Identity: who you are and why that’s fine”. In: The creative license: giving yourself permission to be the artist you truly are. New York: Hyperion.

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