March 1827, Beethoven lay in bed close to his last breath. He looked up and asked, “Tell me the truth, were my symphonies any good?”
“Almost every day, I feel self-doubt and a sense that I can do so much better. I have produced perhaps five pieces of work in my life with which I am very satisfied… I see the flaws in my work first and ways in which I could have made things better…. The more I learn, the more I understand how much I have to learn about letter forms. Seb Lester, master calligrapher
Beethoven did it. So does Sebastian Lester, an award-winning calligrapher. And so do most of us. Focusing on flaws, on what’s not working and on self-doubt — these are common maladies of the creative, the artist. There’s always a truer note, a more revealing stroke of color, a better word. We are always chasing, always clinging to the idea of perfection, never satisfied. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.
There’s an upside to this: It keeps us humble, it keeps us hungry, it keeps us growing. But sometimes putting all our attention on flaws — on what’s not working and where we’re falling short — can be counterproductive. If we over-indulge in these feelings, it can plunge us in the “Slough of Despond” and immobilize us. It can also obscure or dampen our enthusiasm for what’s going well — and keep us from sincerely appreciating the real progress we’ve made.
So let’s keep our “flaw finding” in perspective: Let’s balance it with appreciation and gratitude for moments of “good working” — those times during the day when we come up with a more muscular verb or create a juicy character description or keep going when we feel like stopping. Let’s remember to give ourselves a “Good job!” now and then, just the way a coach or teacher does to encourage a kid.
Athletes use a concept called “anchoring” that you can apply during your workday to reinforce positive action: Whenever you accomplish something in your writing that you feel really good about — even proud of — link that positive, can-do feeling with a physical gesture or by singing or saying aloud a phrase or a word like “Yes!” or “Good job!” But make sure to use your action and/or words only in connection with this buoyant feeling.
By repeating your anchoring formula again and again, you’ll imprint the connection between your uplifted state and your anchoring mechanism. Once it’s thoroughly embedded internally, you can use your particular sensory anchoring tool to evoke a feeling of accomplishment, confidence, and euphoria whenever you need it. When I want to celebrate and imprint a moment of triumph, I do a Rocky imitation: I pump my fists in the air and say, “Yes!” It always makes me smile and feel like a winner.
Why not try it and see if it works for you? If it does, I’d love to hear about it. Write on!