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Dealing With Uncertainty in Art...and Life

Note: This post stems from my readings in the book “Art & Fear”.

The authors tell the story of a young student who began piano studies with a master. After a few months of practice, the student complained saying “I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers”, to which the master replied “what makes you think that ever changes?”

The lesson? Uncertainty is an asset in art.

vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from. (15)

Unfortunately, it often feels like everything you do is tainted by uncertainty: uncertainty of your materials, uncertainty around what you’re producing, and most of all, uncertainty about yourself and whether you’ll ever be satisfied with anything you make. However, what’s important to remember—and I loved this book because the authors stress it—is that this feeling is normal.

The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse...Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all. (19)

The trick is that you need to give yourself room to act and react authentically to your work. Many fiction writers don’t believe in making plot outlines because they’ve discovered that as the plot progresses, characters in the story take on a life of their own. Control is not the domain of the artist— uncertainty is. As the authors state, “tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding”.

What’s really interesting to me about these observation is that, while they were given in the context of art making, they seem equally relevant to the art of living.

What’s really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. (21)

I think that’s true of creating or living.