Imagine That

The fear factor

Laura Mann

Artist Howard Ikemoto, a Sacramento painter who remembers drawing his first landscape around age 4, recalls a conversation with his own elementary-age child. “When my daughter was about 7 years old,” Ikemoto writes, “she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She looked at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’”

When young children draw, they confidently fill the page. They draw important figures, such as parents and teachers, much larger than they would be in reality. This adds a contextual element to children’s art that is intriguing, and allows us to analyze the emotions behind the drawing.

When asked to draw a picture, many adults will not fill the page with the aplomb that is common in children. The culprit often cited is fear: fear of critique, fear of failure, even fear of success.

Fear is an instinctual trait that has benefited us as a species. (If our Cro-Magnon ancestors weren’t afraid of the saber-toothed tiger, they could be eaten very quickly.) Fear of criticism, although less ingrained than the fear of things with giant sharp teeth, is another evolutionary-based response. (If a Cro-Magnon human were criticized, he or she might be shunned and left out in the wilderness to be eaten by those fearsome saber-toothed tigers.)

Fear can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to creative productivity. When the brain is focused on fear, thought processes are emotionally hijacked, and our ability to think creatively is diminished.

Drawing conclusions

Self-consciousness is also a big part of why adults forget how to draw. We see others draw really well, and we don’t feel we can compete. It’s easier to just draw stick figures, or not try at all, than do something that doesn’t measure up. This attitude wouldn’t have worked for Steve Jobs and Apple Computer during the years that Microsoft was on top. It wouldn’t have worked well for the artists of the Cubist period, who may not have been as good as Rembrandt at painting realistic, traditional figures, but who filled the page with their own unique shapes, causing people’s views on art to change.

In our schools, and in many corporate cultures, mistakes are punishable, which is a good reason to keep your head down and just not take the risk in the first place. Risk-taking is one of the most frequently cited traits of highly creative people, yet educators and employers often aren’t ready for that. However, if you brace yourself for impact, prepare for criticism, and take the risk anyway, making mistakes, and the associated backlash, can become easier and even rewarding.

Fear of success is another, more subtle foe on the road to creative productivity. Before you get out your teeny-tiny violin, realize that success means different things to everyone. Success on one project might mean more work or an advancement that we don’t deem ourselves to be ready for. If you’re worried about success, look to the example of the child’s drawing once again. Do you know a child who’s afraid of succeeding?

Children don’t have the life experience necessary to fear uncertainty. If you ask children how their future will play out, they are pretty universally optimistic, citing career ambitions such as “movie star” and “astronaut.” They handle it well, and we could all take a cue from kids, and begin filling our pages with creativity and success.

The next time you encounter a problem, envision a child filling the page with colorful pictures. Adults haven’t forgotten how to draw; it may be buried, but the ability is still there. It’s up to us to put the fear in its place and unearth the creativity hidden inside. Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.
© Michael Mann, 2011, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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