Why So Immodest?

Some people can’t do anything without calling attention to it. Others stay in their quiet place doing things that are covertly amazing.

When I was 16 I had the privilege of traveling to Italy with some other students in my school. While riding the tour bus through the rainy Italian countryside, we stopped in a small town and went into a castle-like building that looked like an art gallery. The guide led our group up the stairs where against the far wall an old man sat hunched over a lamp. When we approached we saw that he was lost in his work, squinting through a jeweler’s magnifier which he held in place between his frowning brow and flexed cheek. In his hand, an ivory cameo was taking shape—a miniature work of art carved in ivory.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

The next thing I saw was his thumb, which because of a callus seemed twice its normal size. The man was close to 100 years old and had been working at his craft around 80 years, if I’m remembering correctly. The strokes of his tools seemed effortless.

And there he sat, silently. He never said a word to our group. He was too diligent creating beauty that spoke for itself.

I want to be the kind of person whose value is discovered. So many in our time leave everything out on the table and there’s nothing left to mine, no thrill in the search, no sense of wonder when the full picture comes into view.

Modesty is underrated.

Self-Doubt and Overconfidence

There’s more self-doubt in this world than I know what to do with. How many people have something great inside them, some light to throw into the world, but they sit on it their whole lives because they think they aren’t the ones to do it? 

How to know if self-doubt is a problem for you:

  1. You know enough about a thing to know you know almost nothing about it.
  2. You’ve been fascinated by the thing, and so have been a natural student of the thing, for years.
  3. Despite hearing several times from people who know what they’re talking about that the thing you make (or do or know about) is good and valuable, you aren’t putting it out into the world consistently.
  4. Every time you make something, the feeling of how much better it could be overtakes your momentary satisfaction at having made something cool.
  5. You aren’t very impressed with the things you’ve made in the past, even if you see some good in them.
  6. You can’t share anything you’ve made without giving a disclaimer, like, “Oh this could be so much better,” or, “This is okay, but you should see what this other person can do.”

You have to find a way to overcome self-doubt. I don’t know how to conquer that dragon completely, but here’s the thought that works well for me.

When you really know a craft or skill, when you’ve started getting good at it, you rightly think of yourself as having a level 2-3 knowledge about it while the experts you follow have a level 10. You’re probably right. You’re probably decades away from being able to make something on the level of the masters.

But here’s what we fail to consider. To someone else in this world, you are on level 10 already. They would be delighted to see your work, to learn from you, to hear your process, to be like you in every way. You are someone else’s inspiration, but if you never share what you’re working on, they’ll never find you. That’s the light I was referring to. You have a chance to make someone else’s world brighter. Don’t waste it!

Start putting your work out there consistently with no expectations. This does two really important things:

  1. It builds the habit of publishing and makes it easier. –  It removes the rust on your self-doubt and gets you in the flow. Pretty soon, you’re “over it” and not so attached to how people are reacting to it. It takes all the hype out of it.
  2. It keeps you from that quiet arrogance you pretend isn’t there. – Yes, arrogance. Sometimes self-doubt has an undercurrent of pride. We don’t publish our stuff because we’re snobs, and we think our creativity is just for us and that if people don’t appreciate it they just don’t get it. Publishing your work exposes you to your own unoriginality in a really healthy way.

Which leads me to the second half of this post. The other side of self-doubt is overconfidence.

How to know if overconfidence is a problem for you:

  1. You thing you’re an expert and mostly have a thing mastered. (True masters never think this.)
  2. You’ve achieved this skill level quickly, which impresses you, and expect the world to be impressed by you too.
  3. You’ve published work for a long time and the only people who have ever complimented it are your mom or sister—or the same 2 friends.
  4. You’re proud of everything you’ve made.
  5. You’re actually offended when you are overlooked for a project in your field.
  6. You suddenly have a change of heart about what you’ve made when it doesn’t elicit the response you anticipated.

There are probably other indicators.

It seems to me more people are beset by self-doubt than overconfidence, but I know that we’ll never be completely free of either, and that’s a good thing. 

The best thing we can do is complete and share projects often. This keeps us from that thought that hurts so many creative people: at some unknown date in the future I will publish my masterpiece out of nowhere and the world will fawn over it. You might as well plan on winning the lottery.

Hold yourself accountable by sharing your work often. Otherwise you’ll be like an explorer who spends all his time with his nose in the map and sails past a thousand things worth seeing along the way.