I'm Scared to Learn New Things

I want to draw again, but it feels like everyone else is better than me.

¡Hola Papi! is the preeminent deranged advice column from writer and author John Paul Brammer, now living on Substack! If you’ve ever wanted advice from a Twitter-addled gay Mexican with anxiety, here is your chance. Support this column by sharing it and subscribing below, and send him a letter at holapapiletters@gmail.com

¡Hola Papi! 

I used to be a curious, ambitious kid, but a combination of art school, an abusive household, and bad relationships knocked it all out of me. I've been recovering for the last four years, but every time my peers talk about being excited to learn new things, or pick up new skills, I get horrible anxiety. 

I feel like I'm going to be left behind. But whenever I open a new software or start a new project, I just stare at it, and don't know where to start. I'm constantly overwhelmed. Now I'm at the point where my younger peers are outpacing me, and between that and knowing that I only have a finite amount of time to do the things I love, I'm losing my mind.

What I’m asking is, how do I fall back in love with drawing?

Signed,

Over Analyst


Howdy, OA!

Ah, yes, to have the soft, squishy, flexible mind of a child. Wouldn’t that be nice? Well, I actually don’t know if children’s minds work that way. I avoid them for the most part, to be honest, and I’m not a child scientist.

But you’re not here to listen to me talk about what I don’t know. So here’s what I do know: it’s perfectly natural to experience anxiety before engaging in something new, and in our present economic system we are given ample reasons to question the validity of attempting it in the first place.

Will I be good enough at this activity to monetize it? Will I ever be the best? What’s the point, if so many people are going to be better at this than me? These are just a few of the nagging questions one might raise before jumping into something new, especially if that something is associated with creative outlets that typically don’t pay well (poetry, drawing, etc). 

I would also say from personal experience that those of us with an inkling to create stuff often have an idea of the beautiful, fulfilling things we’d like to make while at the same time understanding just how many hours we’ll have to log into the craft before we can even approach realizing them. 

For me, drawing is a good example. I had a knack for it as a child, and I wanted to be a visual artist. Over time, though, I got overwhelmed by all the education I’d need, the tools I’d have to acquire, and the sheer amount of time I’d have to pour into it. I chose writing instead, because I loved writing just as much, and I found it to be more applicable to the job market. 

But I never stopped dreaming of shapes in my head, the things I wanted so badly to create, and it was a sort of anguish for me not to be able to manifest them, to tilt my skull and pour them out onto something. Such was this discomfort that, once a year or so, I’d experience a fit of productivity where I’d go out, buy a bunch of paper and pencils and brushes, and try, fruitlessly, to make, make, make.

It’s a frustrating thing, OA, to be limited by your own ability. Which is why I think we need a different approach. See, I wanted so badly for the act of drawing to give me the final product I dreamt of. I thought in terms of perfect results. I didn’t think of the process, of the pleasures of just moving a pencil around, of the private happiness of engaging with art for art’s sake, or the satisfaction of devoting myself to a craft.

It makes perfect sense for us to think in terms of products. Even if we never sell our art, capitalism shapes our relationships to leisure, creativity, and self-expression. We want to be “good” at something. We want to be appreciated, and we want to execute our goals as flawlessly as possible. This isn’t because we’re greedy or shallow. I think it’s because we are conditioned this way.

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So what I think might help you, because it helped me, is to find new ways of approaching activities that bring you joy or enrichment. I honed in on you saying younger people are outpacing you, because that’s exactly how I saw things, and sometimes, out of anxiety, still see them that way. Everything is a race. Everything is a score. Everything is a matter of cruel arithmetic: I only have x many years, y many opportunities, and there are z many people outdoing me at all times.

But what I’ve learned is that I’m not in competition with other people in that way. I am on a mission to become myself, the most me that I can be, and as my abilities improve, the shapes in my head respond, change, and what I’m left with isn’t something that can easily be compared to anyone else. It’s an entirely unique articulation of me, of the things in my head. 

My advice, OA, is to push other people out of your mind. Don’t think of it as a contest. I think of it more like prayer, or like dutifully nurturing a plant. It’s a quiet, personal act of devotion, one that can bring clarity of mind. The process itself can be so rewarding. When I think of it that way, it takes all the pressure off of me to be better than someone else or worry if what I’m doing is a productive use of my time. 

Take a deep breath, take your first step, and see where the road takes you.

That being said, buy my art.

Con mucho amor,

Papi