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Is An Inner Argument Holding Back Your Productivity?

Do you have a chorus of voices chiming in whenever you have to make a big decision? How to get your inner selves to work together.

Have you ever received the opportunity of your dreams and sabotaged it by not responding? Maybe you got an email about a possible book deal, or an invitation to play an incredible gig, or an inquiry from a mega-client. The dream invitation came – and to your own surprise, you ignored it. Why do we behave in such a clearly counter-productive manner?

I would argue that we often do this because we’ve brought the wrong part of ourselves to the table. As creatives governing our own careers, we have to bring many different skillsets — many different selves, even — to the diverse activities we do on a daily basis. When we bring the wrong self to the table, we can get paralyzed.

That’s what happened to me. After I’d been blogging for a couple of years, literary agents began contacting me to ask, “Was I interested in a book project?” I certainly was.

We’d meet for tea, and they’d ask me a series of questions: “Who is the target customer for this book? How would you say you differ from say, a Martha Beck, or a Deepak Chopra? Are you doing any major corporate speaking?”

When we bring the wrong self to the table, we can get paralyzed.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but what happened next was this: I ignored their follow-up emails. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, thinking “Seriously, what kind of writer who wants to do a book doesn’t respond to a literary agent’s enthusiastic note?” I wasn’t sure why I was stuck.

Months later, I saw the problem: My inner artist had gotten spooked. Thinking these meetings were about my writing, I brought my writer-self, my super-sensitive inner artist, to the meetings. And guess what? My inner artist is terrified and paralyzed by conversations about how to market her work.

That’s when I realized that there were other selves, other advocates, that I could bring to the table.

There are three voices within every creator:

  • The Inner Artist
  • The Inner Editor
  • The Inner Agent

To have a successful career, we must all learn how to deploy each of them at particular times, and keep them from stepping on each other’s toes.

I would argue that most of the problems in our creative lives stem from bringing the wrong part of ourselves to the task at hand. Most of us under-utilize at least one of the three roles and over-use one of the other roles. A thriving creative career requires consciously shifting between the three voices, utilizing each at the right time.

In the early stage of the creative process, we need the inner artist. The artist’s domain is drafting, receiving ideas and inspiration, fleshing them out. The artist thrives in an atmosphere of curiosity, safety, and play. She needs shelter from others’ opinions and respite from even thinking about what the judgments of others might be.

In the second stage of the creative process, the inner editor leads. The editor’s domain is revising, trimming, structuring. Whereas the artist must forget about what other people might think, the editor brings the audience back into the process, ensuring that the work effectively communicates the artist’s intent.

Then the inner agent takes the baton. The agent’s domain is developing marketing messages for the work, communicating about the work to external stakeholders, and finding distribution. The agent is thick-skinned, brave, and wise about the market.

Most of the problems in our creative lives stem from bringing the wrong part of ourselves to the task at hand.

Of course, the process is not entirely linear. A late-stage problem that requires a highly creative solution might require the inner artist, for example.

Each inner archetype has a wholly different way of being. The artist explores what he doesn’t know. The editor brings to bear what he does know. The agent advocates for what he wants.

If the inner agent shows up in the early stage of idea conception or fleshing out a first draft? Disaster. The agent will impoverish the artist’s ideas by worrying too early on about what will sell. She’ll unknowingly push the work in a conformist direction. She’ll mute the muse.

The inner editor can also disrupt the work of the inner artist — evaluating the work or creating structure prematurely.

Bring the sensitive inner artist into the agent’s domain — into, for example, a business meeting about how to market a piece of creative work? She can become so turned off that she’ll run for the hills, resulting in months of creative stagnation.

To find more ease and productivity in your creative process, I suggest taking these steps:

1. Take a look at what’s been happening in your creative life by answering these questions:

  • Which of these roles is my default/comfort zone?
  • When do I fall into this role even though it’s really not the best fit for the task at hand?
  • Which role is underutilized? Which role or roles do I avoid stepping into?
  • Where do I have “trust issues” between the three roles? Does the inner artist trust the agent to bring her work to market without selling out? Does the inner agent think that the artist is never going to produce anything with commercial appeal? Notice what resentments, conflicts or issues of trust are happening between the three parts of you. Just observing and naming the issues will reduce their intensity.

2. Get to know your three inner creative roles.

Write down a list of words or phrases you associate with each. Give each one a theme song. Identify a color that expresses the personality of each one.

3. Next, look over your calendar for the coming week.

Notice which part of you is best suited for the various tasks, meetings, and work periods you have ahead.

4. As you move through the week, consciously shift into the appropriate mode as you do the work.

Thinking of the color or song you identified can help you quickly access that part of yourself.  Notice when your default role shows up where it’s not helpful, and mindfully move into the mode that’s best suited for the task.

What’s Your Creative Identity?

What have you learned about your different internal personalities? Has your creative work suffered because you brought the wrong self to your creative work?

Comments (106)
  • Asia-Jo Simpson

    So True!

  • Bartjan

    Big eye opener! Thanks! This stuff is awesome..

  • YacoRoca

    Yes it has. I also manage my own design business, as consultant and designer, which means you have to assume different roles to accomplish different objectives.

    Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that each voice works for the other.

    If the agent gets the gig, then the artist can play. If that happens, the editor can edit. If the editor can turn in work, the agent gets to collect and use a new portfolio piece to promote everyone, and get a new gig.

    Just applied your advice to a project in the last stage and it certainly helped organize priorities and get it done quickly.

  • Debra Gould, Entrepreneur

    Tara, this is an awesome article. I love the distinctions you made and also your story about the book agent. I was featured in a full page article years ago in The Wall Street Journal and a NY agent called me about writing a book (something I’d always wanted to do!).

    I turned him down flat as I’d just written my first ebook and was selling thousands of copies at $75 each. In other words, he was talking to my Inner Agent. My Inner Artist has been wondering for years what would have happened if I hadn’t closed that door so hastily!

    I’m in the process of building another brand and my Inner Artist keeps getting run over my Inner Agent and Editor who are sucking the fun — and creativity!– out of it. Your distinction here has made me realize why I’ve been stuck and how I need to tell them to get lost for awhile. Thank you!


    I never took a step back to realize this. I can relate I do mutli services and recently it came time to make a decision about pricing. I was thinking as the artist and just wanted to get the project done and not deal with business but it came back to bite me. I learned now you must do the business side of things then get creative. Thanks a lot for the article!!

  • malarts

    Profound thoughts, hitting close to home this morning. Creative people need a kind of support group, and your “4 step program” is a step in that direction. Good stuff.

  • Yossi

    Finally, someone that make sense of all this! Priceless advice to the most complex human being on the planet: “the Artist”. Most of us juggle between these 3 roles on a daily basis and sometime even within the same hour. Tara’s clear vision and perspective on this vital issue is remarkable. Thanks Tara!

  • Erika

    Ah so there is a method behind all of my irrational decisions 😉 I will be sure to use this technique in the future

  • Jessica Beebe

    This is a truly fresh and inspiring way to look at this. I can’t thank you enough. Recognizing that there are these different roles required of me, and that one will be my comfortable default, helps me realize that I have these tools/personalities at my disposal to handle different situations if I strive to develop each one. Thank you!

  • Diogo Rapazote

    Thanks Tara! This reflection about the creative work really opened my mind. I’ll try to implement it.
    Do you think procrastination has to do with having the wrong part of ourselves turned on?

  • Nina

    Thanks for writing this Tara! I finally understand why I have such a hard time to get started with my own projects. It has been a huge fustration to me in a long time. Normally I work as a graphic designer at an ad-agency. This is here my inner (very critic) editor rules. My inner editor is also my comfortzone, so my (very sentitive) inner artist gets runned over all the time, when shes trying to speak up!! This is an eye-opener and i look forward to explore this more. Thanks! 🙂

  • Drazenka Kimpel

    Wonderful article. Many thanks for enlightening me, that wearing more than one hat is not a bad thing. I am glad to know other people have similar struggles, as I thought I was actually loosing grip on things. I will definitely follow the steps you’ve supplied 🙂

  • Christopher Gustave

    Great article. Really speaks to me. I’m definitely rooted in my inner artist so i hardly give my inner agent the time of day. I’m looking forward to locating a balance based on this construct of yours. Thanks.
    I posted a link to this on my blog

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    That’s great Drazenka – I’m so glad you found this useful. Let me know how it goes with the steps!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Oh good. Time to give some energy & love to that inner artist. It will be interesting to see how that feeds your work at the ad agency too.

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    I do! I think that can often be the issue.

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    So glad, Jessica!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Yup, always nice to have an explanation for them, right?

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Thanks Yossi! I’m so glad this resonated with you. And it’s so true -the inner artist is so sensitive and complex!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Glad they hit home for you.

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Oh yes, the artist will probably not be the best at the pricing decisions 🙂

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    So glad it helped. That’s great to hear. And I love your insight about their interdependence.

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Oh good. I’m glad this gave you some clarity into what has been happening.

  • Lincoln

    Best business-for-creatives article I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for the insights into what I know I’ve been avoiding and preventing me from succeeding.

  • The Art of Promotion

    We have posted this on The Art of Promotion Facebook page for our readers. Thank you!

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