We’ve all heard of that artist.
The one who is immensely talented and gifted, but is almost impossible to work with.
Her temperament is erratic. His morals are shaky. Commitments are rarely kept.
Some might say that this lack of personal character is a symptom of their artistic gift. Somehow, they reason, their love for art makes it impossible to see the world in the same way as the rest of us.
That reasoning doesn’t explain, however, why artists that are just as talented exhibit the exact opposite qualities; grounded, helpful, reasonable and humble.
Clearly it’s not the practice of an art form that makes people behave in a way that violates common standards of decent behavior. It’s an artist’s choices.
If that’s the case, we can then examine how an artist can develop a deeper, more trustworthy character while pursuing their creative dreams. We can do this from three standpoints: The priority of character, the principles of character, and the process of developing character.
The word ‘character’ is taken from the Greek word “charasso”, which referred to the marking or imprint of a coin, or something cut in a certain way and given a defining quality. Artists know well the process of giving a work a defining quality. Each time we sit down to create, we choose to include qualities that will make that artwork unique. The same applies to the artist him or herself. Each day, the choices we make are imprinting marks onto our character. We cannot often alter the marks that we received in the past, but we can choose our response and our future imprints.
It’s important to note that integrity and character aren’t the same. Integrity means acting in a manner consistent with your beliefs. Character involves aligning your beliefs and behaviors with timeless and tested truths and principles that cannot be contradicted. One can have integrity (i.e., honor among thieves, or a code of conduct among criminals) while not developing character. This explains why some artists pride themselves on being ‘true to themselves’ and ‘authentic’ while acting in a manner that contradicts the principles we all agree on – kindness, decency, respect, and so on. They base their belief systems on a faulty assumption – that being an artist permits them to act anyway they want. The wider world may accept their talent, but in the end their character leaves them on the outside of meaningful relationships.
This is why character matters – because being a great artist, but not a great person just doesn’t work in the long run.
Establish the Priority
Being a creative can often blind us to the other aspects of life that deserve our attention. Success becomes our sole focus, and sometimes that means we sacrifice matters of character for the easy way toward what we believe will achieve our goals. This might mean being under-handed toward other artists, finding shortcuts around ethical and legal barriers, or breaking relational ties without regard for the feelings of others. If ‘making it’ becomes more important than ‘making it the right way’, we’ve already thwarted much of our chances of developing a better character.
Before looking forward to the goals you seek to reach, think about the kind of person you want to be when you reach the goals. Do you want to lose trust, and constantly disappoint those in your circles? Highly unlikely. The person that reaches the top can’t stay there if she has stepped on and over people to get there. Your character is what people will remember when your song is over and your art is hidden from view. Your highest priority cannot be being successful for success’ sake – seek success as a person first, then as an artist.
How can your artistic gift help you in this area? Here’s one way – by using your creative abilities to visualize both positive and negative outcomes. Each time you are in your creative element, imagine meeting your goal, but without your closest family, friends or associates there. . Reminding yourself of the entire goal – celebrating artistic success with the respect and admiration of your loved ones – can motivate you toward doing things the right way and becoming the right kind of person.
Know the Principles
If you want to develop a stronger character as an artist, you must first determine what qualities you want to emphasize. Benjamin Franklin, inventor and thinker, famously chose thirteen virtues that he would focus on developing throughout the year. They were:
Perhaps your list won’t read like Franklin’s, but the process is no different for any of us. Without intention, we can’t improve. Thankfully, as artists we have a lot of experience with making a plan. Consider how we map out a new composition, work on a new painting, or choreograph a dance. Every part of our creative process revolves around intentional choices and decisions that we determine will be part of our art. Doesn’t your spiritual and emotional well-being deserve just as much forethought and attention?
Each character trait, just like each of your creative skills, needs identification and dedicated practice. Let your artistic relationships and creative collaborations become the laboratory in which you shape and sharpen your character.
Engage in the Process
There’s no better way to develop a more consistent and caring character than to commit to daily improvement. To engage in the process of character development, ask yourself these seven questions each day:
- Am I more willing to accept criticism than I did yesterday?
- Am I more willing than I was yesterday to accept that my character development will cause conflict with others who aren’t growing?
- Am I displaying more allegiance to truth than I did yesterday?
- Am I acting more consistently with my beliefs than I did yesterday?
- Am I behaving more selflessly than I did yesterday?
- Are my aspirations today more focused on legacy and less on temporary gain than they were yesterday?
- Am I more willing than I was yesterday to be judged by my actions and not on my intentions?
If the answer to these questions on any given day is yes, you can be sure that you are developing a more pure and consistent character. Fortunately, the creative world offers you ample opportunities to test your growth. Each time you reach a point in your career where you are tested, tempted to give up, or challenged creatively, you have a chance to act in a way that either builds your character, or weakens it. While none of us will make the right decision every time, you will sense growing confidence if you hold more and more to your deepest principles. This process is what separates the artist that is known only for their art from the artist who is known principally for their heart.
The heart matters more than the art
While we may have a unique gift for creativity, we are not unique in the world when it comes to our actions, our behaviors and our shared view of the world. When we engage in becoming better people, our art can only improve as our hearts, minds and souls align with the best version of ourselves. That’s when we’ll discover something even more powerful than our art – our influence and impact on others. As Erwin Raphael McManus, author of The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life Into a Work of Art, points out,
“Though we may create many beautiful works of art, the most important works of art to which we will ever give ourselves are the lives we live.”