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Hamster Cage

by Joanna Priestley


A former student came by my studio to show me the tiny amount of work he had done in the past four months. He is incredibly talented and the work had a fresh, unique style. He said he was not able to get much done, even though he has lots of time to animate. After chatting with him for an hour, he told me that this has been a problem since childhood. Every time he starts making something, he feels like it is never good enough, so he stops working.


I think of this as the hamster cage problem: Our minds contain a little cage with a hamster spinning on a wheel. It generates these thoughts: “That’s not good enough!”, “You have no talent!”, “You’ll never succeed!”, “That won’t work!” There is a multitude of variations to these meaningless thoughts and they play over and over and over on endless repeat in our minds. 

The hamster wheel says you are not good enough!

Some people are able to ignore the hamster cage and some are not. I had a bad case of this for many years, but one day I realized that the thoughts were always the same, no matter how good or bad the work was. That day, I simply stopped listening to them. It took a few years to completely ignore them, but finally I was able to experiment wildly or do something truly ugly and shaky without hearing the sharp little voice in my head that said “That doesn’t work! That’s awful. That is a failure!”

Live Fully, Imperfectly and Wildly!

Anne Lamott has a manifesto on perfectionism in her wonderful book Bird by Bird. She says "It is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you're an artist, it will destroy you…" I love Lamott's motto: "I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That's why I'm alive." Ignore the inhibitory thoughts. Be simply yourself. Experiment! Love every moment of your extraordinary creativity! It is a joy and a gift, to ourselves and to our community, that we can spend time making things with our hearts, minds and hands.

How to Begin?

Concentrate on putting your your feet next to a work table or your hind end in a chair and working everyday. Even if it is just for a 15 minutes! Or try for several days a week, every week. It's important to develop the habit of working. If you enjoy it, you may continue. If you don’t enjoy it, figure out what you enjoy most and do that. Work discipline can be inherited from observing a parent, friend or mentor. It can also be developed by working everyday or as often as you can. Do not give yourself a hard time about not meeting your goals. Reset your goals to an attainable level, enjoy the process and keep working. Keep it simple and do your best! 


Make Misteaks

One final tip is to make lots of mistakes. I stop and pay close attention whenever a mistake happens when I am animating. I almost always use my mistakes because they frequently lead to something more interesting than what I had in mind. When I am working on a magazine image collage, I sometimes use the back of the piece that I have just cut out.

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