The Importance of Setting Goals
If you think about it, the term “artist” is a “one size fits all” sort of category that probably doesn’t really come close to describing who you are and what you do. Damien Hirst, who famously chopped up sharks and floated them in tanks with formaldehyde is an artist; someone who makes a living painting traditional portraits is also an artist. Comparing your career to those around you can be maddening, because everybody’s situation (and everyone’s work) is different. So where do you fit in and how do you know when you’re getting somewhere, and not just treading water? This is where setting goals – writing them down so that you can see them – can be a tremendous help in giving you the clarity and the peace of mind you need.
At least once a year, I clear a bit of time from my schedule to sit down and have in front of me a piece of paper and a pen. I divide the sheet into two columns, one for “career” and one for “work.” One of the hardest things to do in this exercise is make the leap to see your career and the work that you make as being separate – but for our purposes right now, they are.
Try first writing out things that you would like to achieve in your career over the next two years. Be brutally honest with yourself – if you want to make a million dollars, don’t be embarrassed, write it down! Many people are afraid to even wish for success, fearful that it makes them pretentious or “in it for the wrong reasons.” But this list is for your eyes only, and no one else ever has to see it. You’re also just brainstorming. So go wild – do you want a solo show? How about a solo show at a particular gallery? What about a bigger studio? Or a job that gives you more free time to do your art work?
At first, just fill up the page with as many crazy ideas as you can come up with. Don’t knock them out of your head thinking, “That will never happen.” Just write them down and move on to the next entry. Once you’ve gotten out all your ideas out, then go over them and try and narrow the list down to the three to five of the most important.
Sometimes we want things simply because we think we’re supposed to want them. I have a tiny studio that I complain about all the time, but if I’m being honest with myself I have to admit that a larger studio would simply get cluttered with more junk, and that the upkeep would distract me from my work. As much as I’d love the status of a huge studio, it’s infinitely more practical for me to have a smaller one. But meanwhile, while I am loathe to think of myself as being motivated by money, I have to admit to myself that I have been really struggling with some unexpected medical bills lately. “Make more money” would not have been on my list a year ago, but it certainly is now. As your life changes, so do your goals.
Next, try and tackle a similar wishlist for your work. This list should pertain specifically to what you want to achieve in your art – don’t consider sales, or trends, or shows, or publicity, rather instead think about the kind of work you (simply, purely you) want to be making two years from now. What is the ideal way for your work to grow? Will it have more color, texture, be larger or smaller, be more personal or political, or… what? If you had no restrictions on space or supplies, what would you make? What is your fondest wish for your work? Once you have written as much as you want, try and scale back that list to also be between three and five specific things.
When your list is complete, read it over a few times. Then put it somewhere where you can find it easily, but is also still private – in a sketchbook, or in a drawer or something like that. You don’t want it to stare down at you from the wall of your studio every day, where it will put way too much pressure on you to achieve all these things immediately. Instead, have it someplace where you can take it out every now and then and look at it and be reminded of these goals you have set for yourself, and then put it away, only to take it out again when you have another quiet moment.
And that’s the best time to review your list – during lulls in activity, when you find yourself wondering what to do next. Before you start that new painting, take out your list and remember that you were once thinking that working larger and with more color would be a good idea – so, is this new painting the opportunity to start trying that? Or when you’re just pulling everything together to do a mailing, take a look at the list and… remember that solo show you said you wanted? How about sending an announcement to the director of the gallery you said you wanted to show in?
It’s these small gestures that really add up over time and pay off in the long term. Working on your list of goals is a constantly evolving exercise, but it helps to keep us focused on the sorts of things we truly want for ourselves.