Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure
We’ve all heard the phrase “Dance like nobody’s watching.” It shows up in Facebook memes and on motivational posters. It has been credited to a variety of sources, including Mark Twain (it doesn’t sound to me like something Twain would have said). The website Quote Investigator has an interesting post concluding that songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh are the likely originators of the line.
My primary interest today, however, is this: Should we really dance like nobody’s watching? Seinfeld fans take note, I’m asking figuratively, not literally. Should we live our lives – including our creative lives – as if no one is watching?
Of course, the phrase is symbolic of not living in fear of the disapproval of others. Life is short and we should be ourselves, whether or not the person across the room thinks we look goofy.
My thinking about this was triggered by a pair of runners I saw in our neighborhood recently. One was dressed conventionally, in a t-shirt, running shorts, and sneakers. The other wore only running shorts, sneakers, and what at first glance, from a distance, resembled some sort of S&M athletic wear. I actually think it was a simple heart rate monitor:
I didn’t really care what the runner was wearing. He probably didn’t care that I didn’t care.
The question remains: Should we really dance – or run, or sing, or paint – as if no one is watching?
The answer, as usual, depends.
What is your objective? If you’re just out for a run and want to monitor your pulse, who cares if passers-by think you’re on your way to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? No laws are broken. Go and be healthy. If you’re singing a ballad while auditioning for a musical theater production, you definitely need to care about what the director thinks. Even if the quality of your singing is what matters most, your appearance and conduct say something about your professionalism. Is that article you’re writing about racial profiling intended purely to offend? Or is there a deeper message about abuse of power that needs to be shared? In creative work, being watched, or noticed, is often the entire point, and we should prepare our work with that in mind.
Are there long-term implications? If you’re enjoying yourself with friends at a dance club, it’s okay if you dance like Napolean Dynamite or Austin Powers. If you’re at the annual office holiday party, think about your professional future. That may be the wrong time to abandon your inhibitions.
Who is your audience? Are you playing with fingerpaints to make a little refrigerator art for your family to enjoy? It’s no problem if your galloping horse ends up looking like a large bug. Planning to exhibit your work in the annual church art festival? That nude self-portrait should probably wait. If you’re writing in your private journal for pure self-fulfillment, go ahead and express your deepest, wildest thoughts (just maybe keep the journal under lock and key!). If you’re writing for publication – even to the web, which is publication, no matter how many people forget – consider what credibility you want to establish and how you want your work to be remembered.
Are the criteria important? In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Fredric Neuman wrote about a college social status exercise that put him at the bottom of the heap – and right alongside his friends, where he had a wonderful time. Being judged by criteria that weren’t important to him helped Neuman identify his crowd and get the most out of his college experience.
None of this means we should live in constant fear or restrain our creative work to such a degree that it’s a pointless exercise. We can still agitate the audience, we can still engage in controversy. But shock value alone is an empty message and indicates a lack of creativity more than anything else.
Seen from another angle, it sometimes makes sense to engage in a little creative compromise to create a more commercial product, and then find other venues to provoke in ways that invite questions and conversation.
We’re hard-wired, to varying degrees, to care what others think. Dancing like nobody’s watching – expressing ourselves as if we’re not being watched or judged – acknowledges that life really is short and we should get on with the business of living. The fact remains, someone is almost always watching. Part of the journey of self-awareness involves determining our own criteria for when, and how much, we should care.