Overcoming Fear of The Unknown: Goal Setting and Role Playing

Fear of the unknown is a great barrier to inaction. Well, fear of anything is a major barrier to a lot of things. Today I’m going to talk about a few strategies for overcoming fear of the unknown, specifically as it applies to the business of being an artist. I’m not going to claim that any of this is original. In fact most of it should be fairly obvious to most people. But in my conversations with artists I’ve found that my description of these strategies is often greeted with a surprise, and then encouragement for me to explain further. It’s happened enough times that I figured I should write it up.

To put this in context, I find that it’s usually much easier to take no action than to try something new. I don’t think I’m all that different than others in this respect. Inaction can be rooted in the tendency towards being a maximizer—a kind of unreasonable perfectionist—that I described in my post about research-induced paralysis. But I think more than anything, inaction is based in fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the known, fear of embarrassment, fear of making a mistake, fear of change.

I have two main strategies for dealing with fear: goal setting (dealing with the what) and role playing (dealing with the how). I can’t say they work all of the time, but they work more often than not.

Goal Setting

I use goal setting a lot. I find it extremely effective to set clear goals for specific situations. I’ll present two example: an art opening, and a meeting with an art dealer.

Situation 1: Art Opening

What do I want to gain from going to this art opening?

  1. I want to catch up with a bunch of art friends, but not necessarily one-on-one.
  2. I want to meet the artist.
  3. I’ve heard that the food will be good.
  4. I’ve spend the last 3 months holed up in my studio, and I want to socialize a bit with my peer group.
  5. I want to see the work.

I often prioritize these goals. My goals lead to a few more questions. I tend to do a quick evaluation of whether this is the best situation to achieve the primary goals. If my primary goal is to see the work, then the opening reception is probably one of the worst times to go. If my primary goal is to meet the artist, then I probably should go to the opening.

Situation 2: Meeting with Art Dealer

Why am I meeting with this art dealer?

  1. I want her to represent me.
  2. I want him to be aware of my work so he can mention it to others.
  3. I want to know which galleries to approach, and how.
  4. I want to show my portfolio.

Again, these questions lead to others, such as how to prepare for the situation. If my primary goal is to gain representation, and I know that I have no inventory, then perhaps there are other things I should be doing that are more important. Such as making some work. Regardless of the situation, I find it’s important to make sure that I only have a few goals. If my “possible goals” list is longer than about five items, I prioritize, split the list into smaller ones, and usually highlight no more than three. Unless some of them are really easy.

On the surface all of this goal setting and analysis can seem cold, calculating, and careerist. But most human activity is goal-oriented, even if our desires are unconscious. I don’t find this goal-oriented thinking to be especially unpalatable because I try to make what I want from a situation reasonable for the context. Especially when defining the ideal outcome of an activity will help me evaluate whether or not the activity is appropriate to the desired outcome. For example, in January I went to Calgary to figure out which commercial galleries I would want to approach for representation. Because my immediate goal was information, it was very easy for me to answer honestly when I was talking to the gallerists who I found myself in conversation with. Rather than walking in with portfolio in-hand, begging for an appointment with the owner, I could simply say that I was looking at galleries with a view to submitting in the near future. After which I was often given very clear information on how to submit.

Clearly knowing what I want, and being able to articulate it has been really helpful in getting me to do things that I’m not comfortable with.

Role Playing

Ok, now that I know what I want, how do I get it? Regardless of the causes of fear, I’ve discovered that role-playing provides a number of workarounds. Here are the two questions I ask myself:

  1. What would a competent person do?
  2. Can I fake it?

Role Playing Strategy 1: What would a competent person do?

I ask myself “If I was a person who knew how to do [the thing I’m trying to do but have no experience with], what would I do?” Sometimes the act of asking the question reveals the answer. Other times it leads to other series of questions.

For example, let’s pretend that I’m an emerging artist who wants to be able to talk to curators. This shouldn’t take much imagination, which is good since I want to use my imagination primarily for creating work. In fact, it would take more imagination to pretend that I don’t want to talk to curators. But I digress.

Action: Talk to curators.
Fear: Curators are evil art-world gatekeepers who don’t want emerging artists harassing them. They only have eyes for the art stars whose coattails they can chase. Many have tattoos in unmentionable places of three-headed dogs, signifying their role in the global art machine. [Editor’s note: Who said fears had to be reasonable?]
Goal: Have I defined one? If not, then role-playing is going to be a whole lot tougher. My short-term goal here—as someone who doesn’t routinely talk to curators—is to talk to one curator about my work. My long-term goal is to have a curator at a major gallery/museum/biennial include my work in an exhibition. These goals are, of course, purely hypothetical, and used for the sake of demonstration only.

Alright. Time for spin control. Let’s reframe the situation. If I was a person who was comfortable talking to a curator with an aim to get her to look at my work, what would I do?

I would realize the following things, probably in this order:

  • it is the curators’s job to look at artwork
  • since it’s their job to look at artwork, curators should want to look at mine regardless of how long/short my art cv is
  • curators they are human beings, not demons
  • many artists are curators
  • I know a lot of artists
  • many of my artist friends are easy to talk to
  • wait a minute, I can think of at least three artists who I have no trouble talking to, who have all been known to do curatorial work
  • I know these three people, and I have their email addresses
  • I don’t think any of them has seen my recent work.
  • Maybe I should get in touch.

At which point I would probably write an email or pick up the phone, and set up a meeting or studio visit. And then somewhere in this process I’d figure out my goals for the contact, which would likely include questions about other curators who might be interested in my work.

Role Playing Strategy 2: Can I fake it?

Yes, I’m serious. Faking it can be a useful tool in when looking at your art career as a role-playing game. [Aside: Yes, after coming up with this analogy I did jot down some ideas for an art role-playing game. Character traits such as OBSequiousness, THIckness of skin, FAShion sense, BANdwagonism and such. Saving throws versus poststructuralism and op art. Quests to steal the coveted Wig of Andy Warhol: +5 to fame, -2 to personability, currently secured in Damien Hirst’s vault alongside Leo Castelli’s suit which is held in trust for Larry Gagosian.] Those of you who have seen me in (in)action as an orchestral violist may doubt my ability to fake things, but don’t dismiss this idea completely. Hollywood movies are full of situations where people get caught up in the giant web of lies they’ve spun in order to cover up for incompetence. I’m not advocating outright lying. I’m suggesting that if the questions “What would a competent person do?” doesn’t yield any results, change to the question to “How would a competent person act?”

I consider myself to be an introvert, but I’ve often had to give speeches or had to chair meetings. These used to terrify me. In my experience the situations where I’ve “faked it” almost always have to do with public speaking or some other kind of unmeasureable activity where getting “caught” isn’t going to have dire effects. A speech given badly can be forgiven. A meeting that goes over time may be frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. Misrepresenting yourself as a professional in a field you know nothing about is just asking for trouble.

If you’ve made it through art school—or any sort of humanities-based higher education—you’ll already know all about BS-ing your way through essays. You can probably fake your way into being an outgoing artist as well. Seriously. Most people want to believe that you know what you’re doing. And if you pretend to know what you’re doing, eventually you’ll get it right and be able to stop pretending. What I’ve found works for me is to choose situations where the acting does not require a significant suspension of disbelief on the part of my “audience” and which don’t overextend my own meagre theatrical abilities. The key here is that the role I take on is one that I eventually want to become, rather than something that is completely at odds with my personality.

You might want to re-read the role playing section above. Note that faking it isn’t really appropriate in technical fields so I wouldn’t suggest it if you work with explosives or pharmaceuticals. I’d also suggest that you limit your theatrics to the way you present yourself in unfamiliar social situations rather than within the context of your art practice.

I have to say that while both of the role playing strategies I’ve described look good from the outside, they are often difficult to practice. I find that I really have to psych myself up for some of them, and that I would be happier staying in my studio and creating new work. So too with goal setting. Simply put, it takes a great deal of energy to do the analysis.

And while this is probably a good topic for its own post, I’ll mention in passing that in addition to setting goals and defining actions, it’s also a good practice to imagine your desired outcomes.

Other Resources

I wrote the first draft of this post back in late February, around the time that I was writing Art Practice as Residency. Within days—possibly hours—of writing it, a number of similar online articles came to my attention. One of them was this post from January 2007 titled “Achieving Goals by Improving Your Character on the personal development blog of Steve Pavlina. [Mini Review: I’ve read a number of Pavlina’s articles in the last year or so, and have found some useful stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult to get past his almost Anthony Robbins-esque rah-rah-I-am-a-superbeing attitude, though.]

There’s a great deal of information online on these topics. Generally, though, most of my ideas for “art strategy” come from completely outside the field. If people are interested, I can post some links. Some of them are personal development sites like the above-noted Pavlina blog. Others are only tangentially related to art, and are more focussed on careerism. But I’ve got a list of decent “networking for introverts” articles stashed somewhere on my computer. Of course simply googling that phrase should be sufficiently revelatory.

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