LEARNED HELPLESSNESS: A Fear to Hope (Sustainable Artistry Series #1)

Photo- Gioia De Antoniis, cc

Photo- Gioia De Antoniis, cc

“Defining non-negotiables with my art sounds nice, but there’s no way.  I won’t be able to pick and choose projects. Once I get out of college, I’ll have bills to pay, rent, and a sizeable student loan to pay off. How am I suppose to be an artist and eat? I have to compromise. I have to work. How is it going to be anything but a hustle every day?”

A scared senior voiced what most there were thinking at a recent master class I was coaching in Sustainable Artistry for graduating theatre majors.

The room got very still. I could see what I was suggesting was conflicting with years of “preparing for the real world”. I could feel their fear of… Hope.

As a touring, teaching artist, I hear this monologue often. I hear it from educators. I hear it from students. I hear it from struggling artists in the field.

It’s the modern monologue supporting the starving artist myth.

It’s the “truth” many educators feel they are preparing their students to face.

It’s the false belief that you have no choice, no viable options. You have to do what you’d rather not.

And that’s learned helplessness.


Where does this fear to hope come from?

From a risk-adverse society, where failure is the true F-word. Plain and simple.

But we weren’t born risk-adverse. Quite the contrary, children take risks daily, hourly… I’d venture to say minute-by-minute if my sons (5 and 1) are any examples, attempting breath-holding-finger-crossing feats at every blink.

Their failures rarely result in learning not to do that feat again, but merely how to tweak it, alter, refine and dive again.

It’s my voice, or my husband’s, or onlooking adults’ voices that “teach” not to attempt that feat again. And we’re not “teaching” to be mean, to make them feel helpless. That’s the screwed-up part. We think we’re “teaching” out of love and helping them prepare for bigger, potential hurts. We are teaching them about “real life” in order to protect them, but we’re not…

Kids don’t remember what you try and teach them. They remember what you are. – Jim Henson

We’re teaching them–out of fear–to give up, to stop trying. And like Mr. Henson points out, the lessons don’t stick, the fear does.

And the truth is we can’t predict the future, we don’t know what their “real life” will entail.  So, we are really teaching them to look to others for direction and distrust their instincts to explore, play and risk.

Then we send them to school…

With a healthy training in looking for adults to give direction, children are sent into an education system that doesn’t educate, but rather trains. The education system has shifted so dramatically into training–passing on techniques proven to work in the past—that it’s morphed the very definition of education from its Latin origin:

THEN… Educe (Latin root) – Bring out or develop (something latent or potential)

NOW… Educate – The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.

The Latin root, educe, focuses on the internal, bringing out and developing what was already in the student. The current definition is external, the polar opposite, focusing on others having instructions they give to the student.

This 180º shift, plus more years required in the system due to education inflation (that BFA isn’t what it use to be, time for you MFA or PhD) and a crushing student debt has reduced most new artists into realists, focusing on how to survive in the “real world”.

learned helplessness

Surviving in the “real world” has translated into:

  • Take what you’re given and be thankful
  • Keep putting yourself out there, but know that it’s awful odds that is often beyond your control
  • Have back-up plans, a.k.a. A net
  • Stay in school so you can at least teach if your art doesn’t support you… And remember what we said about the odds
  • Find out what they’re looking for and work your ass off to be that

Where in all of this is room for what truly supports art?

  • Individualism
  • Risk taking
  • Speaking out when no one else is
  • Honoring your point of view
  • Looking to yourself, not the masses, for where to go and how to serve yourself/your art
  • High stakes

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle

The real kicker is… There is no true “real world”. I’m sorry, there isn’t!

There’s just a patchwork quilt of myth, fear, belief, interpretation and personal experiences heightened to fact in its transference as education. Your reality is not my reality. Just take a few minutes to scroll your Facebook or Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s stop “real world” teaching, please. It is only paralyzing the next generation of artists to shoot lower, try less, and give up sooner. It even puts blinders on us to possibilities right at our fingertips. That’s the ultimate tragedy of learned helplessness. It turns everything into a forced choice, a have to, not a want or need. It shuts off, not options themselves because they are unlimited, but the ability to see and believe in them.

Life must believe in its survival in order to thrive.

Art is an exploration and expansion of life.

Artists must believe in their art’s survival in order to thrive.

This first step to Sustainable Artistry is to take off the blinders and realize you ALWAYS have a choice.

How to see those choices, weigh them, act or edit them… We’ll keep chatting about that.

You’re on your way to Sustainable Artistry… In this series–now picked up by HowlRound–I’ll chat up all kinds of hot topics: Choices instead Compromises; Is It Art or Craft?; Non-negotiables: Why You Must Say No; Allowing Your Audience To Find You.

Want to dive into for yourself? Check out my Sustainable Artistry Coaching. It’s all about delving into who you are, what you want and why it matters to your community.

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