Why Focusing on Numbers Will Kill Your Creativity

A/N: This is based on a piece I did awhile back on Medium.

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The rabbis tell a story: In the beginning, the angels were jealous of humans, for humans were made in the divine image. They decided to hide the divine spark from humans so they would never find it.

Some angels said to hide it in the depths of the sea. Others urged to put it on top of the highest mountain where humans could not reach.

But one clever angel said, “No, we must hide it deep inside each and every human. They will never look for it there.”

One of the critical parts of my creative journey has been participating in the HitRecord collaborative art community. Being able to share my art with others has changed my life. It has helped me grow as a writer and photographer and allowed me to meet incredible people from around the world.

There’s just one problem: I get lost in the numbers.

Every time someone sees potential or enjoys a piece of my work, they can heart it on the site. A little number shows up on my dashboard. It’s exciting and it feels validating. But it becomes addicting. It becomes a way of judging myself, and my worth.

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It starts small. I see my piece has received maybe six hearts. Awesome! Go to another person’s writing and they have 20 hearts. Uncontrollably, a small niggling voice wonders, ‘well why didn’t 20 people like my piece huh??’ Instead of being happy for a friend, my face begins to turn green. The numbers turn art into a competition.

In any creative work, the idea of limited supply turns your creative process into a fight for survival. Follow that mindset long enough, and it will ultimately kill your creativity. Your work will be about gaining outside approval, not about your process, not about your voice.

It was that drive for approval that made me stop and think. Why was I writing and doing photography in the first place? I had wanted to share my perspective, my own voice. Sometimes, people will resonate with it. Sometimes they won’t. But that doesn’t make the work any less valuable for me.

Also, what do these numbers really tell us? That people saw something. I received five reactions. It only gives me a small idea of impact.

But even if twenty people like your photo on Instagram, what happens then? Are you happy? Are you satisfied?

When I ask myself, the honest answer is no, I’m not. It’s pleasant, for a moment. But it passes quickly. It’s easy to slip into needing the numbers to just get bigger and bigger.

Yes, the numbers game turns me into a dark version of the cookie monster, trolling the internet for approval. I don’t like it, but I believe many of us struggle with it. And those of us putting our hearts and souls into creative work are even more susceptible.

Confusing approval for acceptance

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Creative work is more susceptible because it’s more personal. A poem isn’t just words strung together, it’s a moment of heartache or humor. A song isn’t just a song: it’s hours of work crafting words and a melody. Creative work, whatever the medium, whatever the output, says a lot about ourselves (whether we like or not).

As social creatures we want to be accepted. In an online world where there’s so much going on, it’s easy to get lost and hear only silence.

And the numbers, for a little while, make up for that. Approval gives us the illusion of acceptance. We see people are noticing us, maybe praising us. But most don’t go into creative professions to be famous or well liked. We put ourselves out there again and again to be told these simple words:

You aren’t alone.

You aren’t fucking crazy.

You are valued.

You are enough.

But no number, no matter how high, can tell you those words. We can only find that worthiness inside ourselves. We get true acceptance by being authentic in our work, not succumbing to the lowest common denominator.

I know that’s hard to believe. God help me, I don’t believe I’m enough every day. It’s easy when you have a thin skin to be easily bruised and battered by this world. It’s easier to let numbers define you. But there’s only one number you ever needed, yourself.

So how do I stay focused? 

  • I watch out for my triggers like spending too much time online.
  • I repeat to myself: Art is not a competition. Art is not a competition. Art is not a competition. (Best done in absurd voices.)
  • I go back to the basics of self-care. Why? Because obsessing over numbers is a sign that I need more care. I don’t need numbers: I need a friend to listen to me whine on the phone. Or maybe I just need to lie in bed crying while watching a sappy movie.
  • I savor my own work. If I don’t enjoy it, why am I doing it?

How you stay grounded could look totally different. Maybe you use the internet as a place to find affirming quotes and self-love resources. Maybe you call up some amigos for a jam session or to come over for booze and explorations in baking. Whatever helps you stay calibrated, start there. And do some creativity activities that are fun, not about popularity.

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Sometimes you do fun projects, not perfect ones

Let me tell you: I go through this over and over again. I wrote the original version of this piece over a year ago. It takes time and is too easy to forget.

But I know this: You gotta show up. Keep coming back to your creative passion, no matter what. Keep coming back. Because the blank page, the silent guitar, the open field, are still available for your creativity.

Why? Because you deserve to express yourself no matter what.

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