On Bad Art, The Comfort Zone, and Just Doing It
Written by Des Magness
One year ago, I packed up and left Austin, Texas, to move to Manhattan. I had lived in Austin my whole life, but I had spent half of that waiting to leave. For years, I had known I wanted to follow my passion for photography and was ready to turn it into a career. I had been accepted into Parsons School of Design, and it felt like the right next step.
And, it was. Though it took longer than I expected, I fairly quickly adjusted to New York being home, and I met some of the most incredible and talented people I’ve known thus far in my life. But despite what felt like such a major success, both personally and career-wise, I struggled with feeling inadequate - I was a self-taught photographer and felt competent in that. But at Parsons, I was required to take drawing, 3D art, and design classes that required me to conceptualize, bring to life, and present my ideas in a way I had never been introduced to before. And in addition, I often felt like I was the only one who didn’t know what I was doing.
I was suddenly surrounded by incredible artistic talent - which was amazingly inspiring, but in more honesty, deeply intimidating. I wanted to do the best I possibly could, but I could barely keep up. I struggled to hold onto my voice and confidence as an artist in a world where I honestly didn’t consider myself an ‘artist’. I couldn’t draw, I have no sense of precision (or the patience to learn it), I don’t enjoy making things with my hands. Photography had always been my means of expression. I was a photographer and only a photographer. But I didn’t particularly consider it an art form, and in the beginning, being at Parsons firmed that view. I also struggled with imposter syndrome - why was I there? Did I really belong at a school where I was expected to be good at art? It had taken me two years to convince my father I should even apply to art schools in the first place, and it would be devastating to realize I didn’t even really belong at all.
But as time passed, I began to get more comfortable. I could walk into the cafeteria alone without a paralyzing strike of anxiety, I could make the walk from my dorm to Union Square without using Google Maps, and most importantly I learned to have a sense of humor about my work. Yes, I don’t know how to create proportions, and yes, I honestly can’t draw a straight line to save my life - but I used that perceived failure to learn how to try things without a sense of perfectionism, and to make friends too (what feels better than failing together?). I let go of some of the pressure I was putting on myself. None of this was my ‘thing’, and doing crappy projects still could feel good because I was learning, and that is just what I had come to Parsons to do. I let go of my urge to tell everyone, “I do great photo work! I promise! I just can’t show it in drawing class!”, and I let go of my frustration.
And most of all, I learned that I am an artist. I have a sense of aesthetic, vision, and meaning that translates into all my work. Just because I’m not good at something immediately doesn’t mean I’m not talented, or can’t use it at some point to express my point of view. And, I learned to tell myself that I am a kickass photographer - that I know what I’m doing, and I am good at doing it. I learned to stop underselling myself, to stop shaming myself for only wanting to pursue photography (and not graphic design, fashion, or the other myriad of talents that my friends at Parsons possess). I learned that I am not my friends or my professors, and I understand myself well enough to know how much is healthy for me to take on. I learned that the career I want is valid and that I can make it happen. I learned that through photography is my overruling passion, I am also a writer, a conceptual thinker, a video editor, a creator, and maybe someone who can even draw a little bit. And, I learned all that despite not taking a single photography class my first semester.
The things I learned during this process I will most definitely carry with me. And, in (mostly) chronological order, they are: 1) Do anything you can to step outside where you are comfortable. That is where you will grow. It may be uncomfortable, and it may feel wrong in the moment, but you will always get something out of it. 2) Have a sense of humor and lightness about yourself and your failures - not just around others, but in your internal monologue. Telling yourself it was ok to mess up, it was ok to try and do badly, giving yourself that space to fall down and laugh about it - that is how we make success from what feels like total failure. 3) Allow yourself mental room to grow. Don’t put yourself in a box. You are not just the sum of what you are good at, who you are friends with, or where you came from. You are in the place you are now to develop, learn, and push yourself, and that often means constant transformation. Let that happen without judgment.
True learning is not always an immediate process. It is slow, it is frustrating, and it can often make you cry. But it is always worth it. And, it always, always happens outside of your comfort zone. So from what felt like months on months and projects on projects of failure, I found success. Because to me, success is the learning process - and failure will forever be a part of that. I am still working on the patience part, and the part where you just let failure run its course, but I know now to step out of where I am comfortable at every chance possible. It may suck (and it most definitely will at first), but then it will begin to suck less, and amazing growth will come. I am still very young and guaranteed to continue failing and succeeding and learning for many years to come. And I am so excited.
Des Magness is a photographer, and is currently pursuing her BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She loves shooting portraits, traveling anywhere, and eating tacos every single day on her visits back home to Austin, Texas.