Goal Setting and Art Making — Do They Contradict Each Other?

LOS ANGELES — I meet a lot of artists these days who have big goals. Some of the most successful ones even write them out, with specific numbers like a solo show and such-and-such gallery within three years. In a competitive art environment, it’s great to have goals, and it’s great to make progress toward them.

But a recent article in The 99 Percent reminded me that sometimes goals can get in the way of enjoying the process. Enjoying the process, in my book, is a key part of being an artist:

Telling people about the benefits of origami (e.g. it improves hand-to-eye coordination) made them keener to try it. But for people actually enrolled in a class, focusing on these kind of long-term benefits (i.e. the instrumental goals), and keeping these in mind during an origami class, led them to enjoy the class less, to express less interest in doing origami again in the future, and to turn down the chance to buy an origami kit of their own.

It got me thinking about another study I read recently in The Atlantic, looking at the simple fact that “those who can afford to do everything are stressed because they can never have the time to do it all.” More money and success in life means more options, and that means a lot of anxiety about what to do next. That might be hard to decipher in many professions and lifestyles, but for artists, the central purpose is to create work.

Fortunately, that same article in The 99 Percent points to a solution. Visualize your goals at first — that’s what will get you going. But then set those goals aside and focus more on how much you’re enjoying the process. You might be surprised to see what new work comes out of it.

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