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Get Out Of Your Own Way: Opening Up Room For Improvement

Ruth Lee

“Keep an open mind! Make some room to surprise yourself,” my grandparents told me about 30 times before finally dropping me off at a summer pre-college program for visual arts.. Like everyone else, I had two goals in mind: to grow as an artist, and make every single second count. However, I quickly learned that if I wanted to fulfill my goals for that summer, I needed to revise my mindset.

Coming into the program as a mostly self-taught artist, I was honestly intimidated by my classmates, many of whom were in cool art programs at school, or were actually students at a high school dedicated to art. I knew I wanted to absorb as much as possible and bump up my skills–but I thought I already knew exactly what areas I needed  to improve in. I started to get tunnel-vision where I got stuck on one idea of what I wanted my art to look like.

Watching all my other classmates hit the ground running and absolutely KILLING it in their projects  made me start to think long and hard about why I wasn’t having the same success.. During a group critique, I realized that : I wasn’t improving because I wasn’t LETTING my mind improve. I was open only to what I wanted to be see, and not everything I could be utilizing in the moment. I needed to give myself freedom to access my fullest potential and creativity.

After that, I decided on a new single goal for the remaining time I had at the program: leaving all the habits, inhibitions, hesitations, doubts, and fixations I had stored up in my mind over the years. I I needed to be fully present, and start with a fresh plate every day so I could make use of all the resources provided to their fullest potential.

When I walked into class every morning, I took a deep breath and imagined myself sweeping my mind completely clean of whatever thoughts I had running in my consciousness: “I’m so dang tired!” “Maybe I can just take a nap at lunch instead of eating?” “I’m getting 3 coffees after this!” “I don’t even want to look at a stick of charcoal anymore!!”

And as a result, I honed in my focus and clarity like never before during each studio. I couldn’t have felt prouder when I received positive critiques  and FELT myself improve. I knew that for the first time, I had really, truly earned it.

Mixed Media Collage, Ruth Lee

As a person naturally inclined to be detail-oriented and frustrated when things don’t go according to my immaculate hour-by-hour plans, this process of self-reflection was one of the most valuable lessons I took away from the summer. This new mindset  helps me succeed everywhere:  in school, life, and will continue in my future career.

Looking back, I accomplished more in those 6 weeks than I have in the past 13 years of my love for art. This experience showed me how much potential I can have if I get myself into a productive mindset first. The only thing holding me back is myself: I believe that you can get any opportunity you want if you learn how to get out of your own way.

Mixed Media Collage Sketches, Ruth Lee
Charcoal Drawing, Ruth Lee

Here are 3 mantras that I read to myself every morning before I went to class.

1.  Focus on the big picture.
Imagine your most precious future goal. Any time you feel like giving up, remind yourself that every day you spend stagnating puts you one day farther away from your ultimate goals.  Don’t take one step forward only to take two steps back.

2. When it’s over, you’ll appreciate it.
This summer program came and went incredibly fast.  I gave my roommate a teary goodbye hug and got  on a plane back to California. Keep going and remember that you can always catch your breath later once it’s done. Yes, it takes LITERAL blood, sweat and tears to work hard, but later you’ll be so much prouder of yourself and what you could accomplish. Trust me, you will really reap the benefits of every ounce of effort you throw in once it’s all over. Hard work is priceless. Your time is short–don’t cheat yourself into getting less when you could be getting much more.

3. You can only do as much as you think you can.
Don’t tell yourself “this won’t work” or “this will fail” unless you want it to. The moment you set your boundaries for your art, you’ve already determined your fate. People will respect you much more for daring to try,  even if you don’t succeed, rather than playing it safe.

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