In this 99U talk, illustrator Christoph Niemann, author of Abstract City, shares his three biggest fears: the fear of not being good enough, the fear that our work will be irrelevant, and the fear of running out of ideas. Each of these cripple our process in different ways, but as Niemann explains (complete with hilarious illustrations), there are solutions we can apply to each.
Push yourself to learn new things, embrace the grumpiness, and realize that there’s nothing wrong with you when you feel anxious or nervous—it’s just part of the job.
If it’s so painful why did you even get started?
And of course you start not by creating things but by looking at art. And when you read that book, or when you look at a drawing or listen to that music and something lights up in you and explains the entire world, or maybe even better, it takes your whole world and turns it upside down. This is such an incredible thrill that you think, if experiencing art is so fantastic, how great must it be to actually make art? And that’s how they lure you into art school.
For the first ten years of my career I mostly worked in editorial. In editorial the deadlines are so insanely short and tight. That you do not have the luxury to really kind of like embark in your creative self-pity but, more recently, I’ve done more self-generated projects where I have more time and I realized it actually got worse when I thought it would get better. So, I tried to think about it and I thought, like, maybe that’s the price we pay. But, on the other hand, I know I have a job that a lot of people envy me for
I realized that a lot of the problems that I have have not so much to do with the actual problem in front of me, but it’s more like a larger kind of generic fear.
This fear actually separates in three grand themes
So the first one is I’m not good enough. The second one is my work is irrelevant and soon I’ll be broke. And the third and worst one is, I’m out of ideas. Now, this is terrible, but sadly they’re actually really legitimate fears to have as a creative.
1. I’m not good enough
I look at my work all the time and all the insufficiencies are so glaringly obvious. Especially when I look at something from two years ago I see everything that went wrong, and I was like, how could they let me get away with that? When I look at other people’s work, I see all the amazing things that are out there, like all the fantastically innovative stuff, and I have to ask myself, can my stuff really live up to that? And even if it can today, can it be in five years, in ten years?
I think the solution is practice and become better. It’s writing, it’s drawing, it’s taking photographs, it’s coding. This is something. This is something not that you’re not good at. This is something you become good at. And it takes exactly 10,000 hours.
2. My work is totally predictable and soon I’ll be broke
I know that the state that we’re in right now, it’s not like, oh, everything changed and now that’s the new future that we’re living in. Of course it’s gonna keep on going and going. And can I do the things? Can I make the right decisions to still be relevant and busy in five or ten years? There’s, this is a very hard question that you have to ask yourself. And I think again, there’s only one solution: worry, doubt, and agonize.
The only thing I could do to really kind of make sure I stay busy is, of course, focus on my work. That’s the only thing, I think, that matters. But how can you focus on your work when you actually have to be worried about money? And I’ve been there, and this is really, this is the worst of it all, of them all.
And I think the only solution there, is to really kind of create a safety zone, where you can focus on your work without having to think about money. And this is very, it’s difficult.
For me what my solution is, like, I try to think of what’s my kinda like, every month expense, which is surprisingly steady, and then I try to multiply it by six and always try to have that number in the account. So I know if something goes wrong, whether its health or work, I can always focus on that thing and then worry about the money a little bit later. And this actually has a real impact on my creativity, I realized.
3. This fear of being out of ideas, this is really close to physical pain.
And you think that if you do something that’s okay, that kind of raises your confidence. But I actually think it’s a burden, because people will, of course, always judge you by your best work. And then you look at it and feel like, well, now I have to repeat this. This is terrible. So, what can be done?
Is your work shallow? Are you taking creative risks? Or are you just writing on the old jokes that worked two years ago. Are you in touch with what’s happening out there?
There’s all these things. I’m drawing little people with big noses, does this add up? And you have to do that. You have to be really critical and say like does this work? Maybe even harder is trying to see, maybe I’m doing something that’s right to actually see what I’m doing that might be good.
You have to sit down, you have to create. You just have to start. You worried, you practiced, you made sure you have food in the fridge next month, and then say how like Donald Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.
So just start and take a leap, and see what happens. I think creativity is, you take what you know, you take like the things that you are comfortable with, and you throw them in a situation of new things, of things that you are uncomfortable with, and all of a sudden, connections happen, new connections happen.