Do you have what it takes to be an artist?

“Do they have what it takes?”

Way too many parents during their child’s portfolio review

Ugh, I hate that question

It signifies everything that is wrong with how the education system approaches creativity and artistic expression.

Unfortunately, it was one of the most common questions I would get as an art college gatekeeper.

A student would be in my office with their parents, nervous to the point of shaking, ready to share their work; I would start the conversation by asking what I could do for them, and without fail the first things out of the parent’s mouths would be –

We just want to know if our child has what it takes to be a (designer, artist, architect, photographer, or insert discipline here _____)?”

The assumption was that either they have “it” or they do not. They’re talented, or not.

We leave it to you, dear gatekeeper, to tell us the ultimate potential of our child and whether their fixation on art is worth pursuing.

The idea that some “have what it takes” and some “do not” is a dysfunctional belief. It is a myth that prevents people from developing their actual potential. It is what psychologist Carol Dweck classifies as a “Fixed Mindset”:

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset— creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

Carol Dweck – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Hazwutittakes 9000

Fixed Mindsets = Squandered Potential

Fixed mindsets claim that your creativity is pre-determined and immutable.

Fixed mindsets claim that if you “have what it takes”, then your process of creative expression will be easy, inspired, and your muse will speak through you with little to no effort on your part.

Fixed mindsets imagine a circumstance where the genius artist sits down, brush in hand, and effortlessly produces perfect work in a single sitting.

This myth is utter garbage and causes actual harm to the creative potential of people.

Meaningful, creative expression is difficult. It requires vulnerability, a risk of failure, constant work, and not knowing whether your intense efforts will succeed.

Trying to prove you “have what it takes” prevents you from engaging with the process necessary to innovate and create meaningful work.

Fixed mindsets are more damaging to those who are told they “have what it takes”

“Don’t all my awards and grades and Instagram followers mean that I’m special and I have what it takes? I got “A”s in my art classes, my teachers sang my praises, I got a top score on the AP studio test and got into a competitive specialized art and design school! I’m the best artist in my school! Are you telling me I am not special?! Not gifted?! Not better than all the others who didn’t get a five on their AP studio test?!”

Too many “gifted” art students

I get it. It feels good to be told you are special and “gifted” and talented and “the next Picasso”. 

The problem is that this discounts the actual work you put in while also setting you up for an inevitable identity crisis (plus you do not want to be the next Picasso).

A constant state of trying to prove yourself

External credentials, awards, and signifiers are great as long as you don’t use them to define your identity.

If your self-identity is tied up in “having what it takes” and “having what it takes” is signified by external gatekeepers and credentials then what happens when you get that “D-” in ceramics class (or rejected from an art school or don’t hear back from that gallery show)?

Do you now no longer “have what it takes”? Do you dismiss the course as bad? Decide that the teacher was an idiot who didn’t know what they were doing? Get your parents to contact the principal because you “don’t get Ds in art”? Do you avoid taking more ceramics because clay just isn’t for you?

Besides, you’re more of a painter anyway because that class is easy for you, and everyone is always blown away by your painting skills.

This mental jujitsu as an attempt to deflect failure is the perfect example of a “fixed” mindset and the exact opposite of what you should be doing when you are developing your potential as a creative.

Cultivating your creativity and skills is hard work. It requires engaging with the uncomfortable state of not knowing if something will work or not. It requires embracing failure as a learning opportunity, not a threat to your identity. It requires what Carol Dweck classifies as a “Growth Mindset”:

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments —everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Carol Dweck – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Own your potential

If a fixed mindset (one that claims your capacity as an artist is out of your control and pre-defined by genetics, divine power, society, or that toxic spider bite) squanders potential, then how do we shift to a growth mindset that will cultivate our potential?

  1. Recognize – First, recognize the indicators of fixed mindsets all around you. It might be a compliment (you are such a creative genius!) or a criticism (based on how bad you did in my course; you should pick a different major). Try not to feel shame or judgment of yourself or others, but simply recognize these statements as indicators of a fixed mindset.
  2. Reflect – Next, reflect on how those indicators make you feel – what they encourage or discourage, and how they might alter your behavior. You might find yourself thinking, “I’m dreading pushing myself because I might fail so I’ll keep painting those small portraits of ducks that everyone loves so much. I am known as the “duck painter” after all.”
  3. Re-Frame – Do your best to re-frame these fearful and limiting thoughts to encourage growth and positive action.

That re-framing process might look something like this:

Can I become an artist without a degree from an art school?

  • Fixed Mindset: If you didn’t get accepted then you aren’t talented enough. So, what’s the point?
  • Growth Mindset Re-frame: Of course! Formalized art school is only one (very limited and expensive) way to access the knowledge and practice necessary to learn skills and connect with peers.

Can I become an artist later in life?

  • Fixed mindset: If you haven’t already, then you’re never going to do it. If you had the talent then you would have already done it, so there’s no point in starting.
  • Growth Mindset Re-frame: Of course. We start where we start. There is no age or time limit to this stuff and your wealth of experience might help you move farther faster.

Do I have what it takes to be an artist?

  • Fixed Mindset: I really am interested in art, but don’t seem to be able to draw as well as the other people around me, and that “draw a turtle or pirate” mail-in course rejected me so I must not have what it takes.
  • Growth Mindset Re-frame: Of course, even if I’m not as far as some right now I can always improve through effort and practice.

The question then becomes: are you willing to do the work required to own your potential and cultivate the skills, mindsets, and practices necessary to develop creatively and artistically?



Dweck, Carol. Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential. Updated Editon. London: Robinson, 2017.