Instagram offers an amazing platform for artists to share their work and connect with other creators. Instagram also creates an amazing opportunity to introduce doubt, fear, and despair into your creative process, slowly killing your motivation to make art and potentially causing you to stop pursuing your passions altogether.
It's happened to me, it's happened to many of my artist friends, and if you're a creative person – especially one in the early stages of your career – it's likely happened to you. Fortunately, the reasons why this happens aren't ambiguous or insurmountable – they are clearly identifiable, and once we recognize them, we can train our minds to sidestep the psychological and neurochemical pitfalls involved with posting our artwork to Instagram. In the process, we can reclaim our motivation to make art and enjoy sharing our creations – regardless of the outcome.
Note: This is a multi-part blog topic. A future post will focus on the danger of comparing ourselves to other artists.
How Instagram Likes Hurt Our Motivation to Make Art
To illustrate how and why Instagram likes can damage our enthusiasm for making art, let's first walk through a hypothetical scenario that, if you're reading this article, will likely feel familiar.
You've worked hard on a new piece of art. You were excited during the creative process and noticed a sense of pride as you finished it. Perhaps you tried new materials or techniques, or saw progress in a technical skill you value in your work. Maybe you just felt particularly inspired and enjoyed the creative process without questioning the outcome. As you wrap up your work, you already feel motivated to begin on your next piece.
But first, you want to share your hard work with others.
You post an image of your new creation to Instagram with the hope – maybe even the expectation – that others will feel your same enthusiasm for it. But immediately after posting, you develop a sinking feeling in your gut: only a small number of likes are trickling in, and within 24 hours they've stopped altogether.
The final results are underwhelming. You feel surprised, because in your heart you were sure you'd created something special. The back of your mind begins to tingle with suggestions that the art isn't as good as you thought it was, and that people aren't actually interested in what you're creating.
You shake it off, and get back to work on your next piece. But now, instead of making the art for yourself, there is a nagging question at work in your mind: "Will other people like this?" By the time you finish the new piece, you find that you haven't enjoyed the process as much as you hoped, and you're not sure about the quality of it either.
But maybe your friends, family, and followers will feel differently. So, you post it to Instagram, again with a sense of optimism.
Instead of reassuring you, the post performs just as poorly as before, and now you feel even more demoralized.
The fears in the back of your mind are amplified, and you almost physically contract with frustration and a sense of disappointment. "Why am I doing this anyway?" you ask yourself. "Why do I spend my time on this when I could be doing something more productive?"
Weeks go by and you realize you haven't really worked on your art. You tell yourself you're busy, you'll get to it, or you just need a break to find your inspiration again. But the time never becomes available and the inspiration doesn't return.
How to Restore Our Enthusiasm for the Creative Process
In this case, our excuses for why we've stopped working on our art aren't addressing the reality of what's happened. The truth is that our brains have undergone a neurochemical shift and are now seeking rewards in the response to our art, not the art itself. And that is death to our creative process.
For me, the key to understanding this came while listening to a chat between Rich Roll, a podcaster and ultra-endurance athlete, and Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, in which Huberman provides an incredibly relevant example of this phenomenon in children.
Check out his explanation and the personal interpretation given immediately after by Rich Roll:
Huberman goes into much more detail about dopamine before and after this clip, and all of it is worth hearing (start the video at 46:20 to get all the great info), but here's the important takeaway: dopamine is responsible for our energy and motivation. It tells us we're on the right path and that we should keep going, and the actions that cause our brains to release dopamine are the things we end up pursuing in life.
In Huberman's example of the kids who like to draw, the children's dopamine reward system (and their energy and motivation with it) was initially rooted in intrinsic rewards. They did not need any outside validation to create their art, they simply did it because they enjoyed it and found personal satisfaction in the work. But the researchers' gold stars re-routed the kids' dopamine reward system to external rewards and someone else's validation.
After that external validation was removed, so was the motivation to make art. And you can probably make the connection from there: Instagram likes are the gold stars for adults.
Once we begin looking to Instagram for validation of our craft, our motivation to make art withers up and dies.
If you're like me, this realization will resonate on a deep personal level. As a kid, I labored over drawings for hours on end with no expectation of anyone else liking them or even seeing them. Why did I do that? Because there was deep satisfaction in the process, in the small improvements and developments I could see happening on the page as each hour passed, and those things triggered dopamine surges that told me to keep at it.
As an adult, the key to restoring my enthusiasm for making art was simply in recognizing and embracing my motivation for doing it in the first place. Instead of looking ahead to the end of a project and expecting some level of bliss for completing it and showing it to others, the real satisfaction is in being present and embracing the process.
And here's the real kicker when it comes to Instagram likes: we'll never get the number of likes we think we want or deserve. My first art Instagram account did remarkably well when it was new, and some posts got over 1,000 likes. But once I began hitting that mark, then everything below it felt discouraging and would cause me to shut down.
My new account has not done nearly as well, and at first I agonized over it. But once I internalized this information about dopamine, I was able to successfully shift my mindset back to what's really important – the process and my own personal growth. I am happy for any likes and comments I get, but I don't allow myself to attach any deeper emotional significance to them, good or bad.
Make Art For Yourself
Artists must make art for themselves first and foremost. Even if a desired goal or outcome is to bring joy to other people, the commitment to spending long hours, often in isolation, is rooted in a need for personal self-expression. There is immense satisfaction to be found in the act of creating, and as difficult as it to believe or remember in the age of social media, it is possible to enjoy our own experiences without seeking anyone else's approval. (In fact, that seems to be where real contentment is found.)
When we relax into the creative process, allow ourselves to be fully present, and focus on making the work that we are most personally excited about, the brain will begin delivering dopamine surges back to us without the need for any external validation.
Trust yourself to make the art you are enthusiastic about and hold onto that as the only reward you need. There's always room to adapt or change creative directions, and there's still room to consider people's responses to our art from a marketing angle if we're trying to earn money from it, but the response from others can never become the reason we make our art in the first place. If it does, then we're very likely to stop making art altogether.