Dear Dr. Maisel:
I spend a lot of my day thinking about painting rather than actually painting. Probably you have a lot of things to suggest but what would your number one tip be to help me get more painting done?
Frank W., Taos, New Mexico
My number one tip is: kill maybe.
When I coach an artist client I listen for how strongly he says yes and no and how often he gets trapped in maybe. What does being trapped in maybe sound like? “Which will be your painting days this week?” “Maybe I can get in some painting on Tuesday and Thursday.” “Will you approach some galleries on your trip to New York?” “Maybe if I have a little time left over after the family obligations.” “When are you planning on moving to the larger format paintings we discussed?” “Maybe if I can find some cheaper canvas.” And so on.
If a client can break free of the maybe trap startling growth can occur. After two phone coaching sessions, a famous singer-songwriter on the verge of refusing to go into the studio to record his new album switched his mind from “Maybe I need more time to prepare” to “Yes, I can record right now.” A painter made the movement from “maybe I can afford a model now and then” to “I can’t afford not to hire models!” and with that new yes came a burst of creative effort. Both in our personal and our creative lives, good things happen when we champion yes.
Why then do we so often say maybe rather than yes? For all the obvious reasons, including the fact that, even when we say yes, there is no guarantee that our work will turn out well. Yes is just a starting point, not a conclusion. After the yes comes the work, with its successes and failures, elations and letdowns. Yes is not pure deliciousness but only the opening without which good things can’t happen. If unfortunate things regularly happen—if we start but don’t finish a project, if we finish it but don’t like it, if we like it but can’t sell it, and so on—it has hard to say yes the next time.
Since we often get these very mixed results from saying yes, we begin to wonder if saying yes is worth the effort it provokes. Why bother? Why stretch? Why sweat? Why create? If all the work that it takes to paint a dozen paintings nets us only one we truly love and if trying to sell our output is like swimming against the tide, why say yes? Why not stay in maybe, which doesn’t get us what we want but at least avoids some anguish? Why not take an easier path?
Well, we know why. Each of us knows why we shouldn’t hang out in maybe. Maybe is a state that puts us right on the verge of meaninglessness. Maybe plays to our weaknesses, our anxieties, and our doubts. Maybe annoys us, frustrates us, and disappoints us. Still we regularly get trapped there because of our everyday resistance to mustering our inner resources, pulling ourselves by the collar in the direction of some hard creative work, sticking with that work even in the face of inevitable messes, and then doing something with that finished work other than putting it in a drawer or the attic. That is a lot to say yes too, especially if our goal is to say yes regularly, day in and day out, and not just on good days or in good weather.
One of the problems is that if we say yes only infrequently, we forget what it sounds like. What does yes sound like? Like the following, from Louise Nevelson: “I get up at six in the morning. I wear cotton clothes so that I can sleep in them or I can work in them—I don’t want to waste time. Sometimes I work two or three days without sleeping and without paying attention to food.” Is this a little obsessive and manic? No doubt. Is this a bit out of the ordinary? Absolutely. Is this more the exception than the rule? You bet. And is this the very definition of yes? I think so.
Listen to yourself this week. When you say something that sounds suspiciously like maybe, stop yourself. If, for example, you hear yourself say, “I’m pretty tired today so maybe I’ll paint tomorrow,” exclaim, “Die, maybe!” Champion yes instead. Say, “I will paint today!” If you hear yourself say, “I don’t think there’s enough light left to paint, so maybe I’ll paint tomorrow,” exclaim, “Die, maybe!” Say, “Let me use this last light!” Every yes of this sort is a passionate call to action: kill maybe and get on with your work.
Kill maybe. Say no to your work when you want to take your daughter to the museum or bring your mother a rose. It is fine to say no when you intend to say it. Say yes to the work often, every day or as frequently as you can. Never say maybe—turn every maybe into an appropriate no or a vibrant yes. Of these three words, yes, no, and maybe, two are brilliant and one is the kiss of death.