Fatalism | Bad Habits, part 5

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


PHOTO CREDIT: intellax *

Fatalism is another powerful enemy of creativity: it tells us that it’s not worthwhile starting anything, because it, and/or we, will almost certainly not amount to anything anyway. At least, nothing is likely to live up to the image we build in our minds when we allow ourselves to dream for a minute, to imagine what ‘success’ would look like.

Now, I am not a big fan of ‘manifestation’ or ‘Law of Attraction’-style visualization. I think many people waste a lot of time and energy that they could be using to actually do or create stuff, daydreaming about what could happen if the world were completely different. I think most people selling this stuff are selling snake oil, and I don’t recommend buying it. You’ll only end up back in fantasy-land.

However, I do recommend keeping a close watch on yourself for signs of fatalism, which is kind of the opposite of believing in benevolent spirits which will make our wildest dreams come true – it’s believing in malevolent spirits that keep good things from ever happening. Both versions are a little bit delusional, and neither helps us get, or stay, creatively unstuck.

As I see it, there are two main manifestations of creative Fatalism:
a) I’m not creative – I don’t know how, I don’t have the talent, etc.
b) why bother trying? Nothing ever works out for me anyway.

Both are excuses for maintaining inertia, for not taking risks. In the first case we are dealing with the Talent Myth – the idea that it is not worth doing creative work unless you are a certified genius. I’ve been around a lot of very creative people in my life, but I’ve never met a single one who does it by magic, who doesn’t have to work and sweat and work through all of this stuff, one way or another, in order to do the work that makes us wonder.


This brings us to one of our culture’s key metaphors: the myth of the Genius, the transcendentally gifted or creative person. You know, the one who doesn’t really have to try or work or practise to be brilliant.

This is a tricky one for me personally because I was given to believe, for much of my early life, that I was a particularly talented child. And it’s true, some things did seem to come very easily to me – so it’s very hard for me to say there’s nothing at all behind the idea of talent. But I can tell you that it’s highly overrated.

First of all, talent is not particularly rare. Many children are gifted in unusual and fascinating ways, and indeed I’m quite fascinated with where that might ‘come from’ – how do we make sense of a child’s seemingly preternatural gift for chess, or music, or a particular sport? I don’t know, but I do know that in the long run it doesn’t count for much. Hard work and dedication to craft count for far more in the long run.

Let’s take the perennial example (and one of the most extreme), Mozart. He displayed prodigious talent as a performer from a very early age, and was composing short works on various instruments by the age of 5. His first operas were written as a young teenager and he was employed as a court musician by the time he was 17. By this time, too, he was writing symphonies and concerti that are now considered staples of the classical repertoire.

So that’s a clear case of transcendental genius, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

What’s hidden behind this story is the astonishing amount of work it must have taken. We know that his father, a relatively established and certainly highly educated musician himself, gave up his own career entirely to cultivate the remarkable talent of his son. His ambition manifested itself in a rigorous program of musical education, as well as a demanding travel and performance schedule. Mozart acheived his ‘greatness’ largely through working harder than most of us are capable of imagining.

What about Beethoven, fretting over flaws in the 9th symphony while the audience at the premiere was in rapture? More than just a poetic image engaging our pathos about the irony of his deafness, it shows his perfectionism, the tenaciousness with which he pursued his vision – instead of succumbing to the fatalist “I’ll never be good enough” line.

Beethoven and Mozart, while obviously enormously talented, were not so different than you or me; again, there are lots of kids with amazing talents, but they don’t all end up making lasting masterpieces of art in their fields. But they were definitely less prone to fatalistic surrender. They stuck with it until it worked. And then stuck with it some more, until it worked better.

Lives of the Rich and Famous

In case of our second fatalistic cop-out, we are dealing with fear of judgement, mapped onto ‘success’ as the objective of doing art or being creative – it’s not worth doing creative work unless you’re going to get rich and famous from it, or at least unless it’s going to ‘pan out’ in some way.

Whatever this imagined form of success might be for you, I submit that drawing lines around it in advance is not doing you much good. We don’t know, not really, what will happen to any creative work that we do, where it will lead us, how it will be received. If we think too small, we’re limiting ourselves; if we think too big, we risk disappointing ourselves. Either way, we’re focusing on the wrong thing – we’re keeping ourselves from giving full attention to the creative work.

Yes, it’s nice when people notice and like our work, and yes, it’s worth putting the energy into ‘getting it out there’ if we believe our ideas are worthwhile. But ‘success’ in the sense of becoming famous for our art is largely an illusion and for the most part does more to discourage than encourage creativity.

Be reasonable!

In place of the two-headed hydra of fatalism, I am offering the idea that doing creative work is worthwhile for two reasons, which have nothing to do with ‘being creative’ and are independent of the outcome of our endeavours, and whether it ‘works out’ or not:

The first reason is simply that it’s more interesting (and more fun!) than being a passive observer of the world. Interesting things happen when creativity starts flowing. Moreover, problems get solved, and if there has ever been a time in the world where we needed creative solutions to some very big and pressing problems, this is that time.

The second reason is that, if we approach it in the right way, it makes us better and healthier people. It cultivates generosity of spirit, it promotes empathy and tolerance, it connects people across boundaries and borders, opens minds and hearts and generally makes the world a better place.

(Artists know this intuitively. We are puzzled when people demand that we demonstrate the ‘usefulness’ of our art, as is becoming more common these days. The question doesn’t make sense to us, and it’s hard for us to imagine the mental state of someone who would be capable of asking it.)

Nothing is really fated unless you accept that it is. ‘Creative people’ do not do creative work because they are fated to do it, but because they have an idea they can’t get out of their head, or they are willing to assume that one will come along if they pick up the tools and get to work… and once they get started, things get interesting and they start having fun and want to see where the process takes them. That’s pretty much it. Ideally, at least.

And of course there is a flipside of fatalism: overconfidence, assuming that because we are ‘talented’, everything will fall into our lap… we’ll come back to that in a bit. Patience, grasshopper!

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

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