Artists Share Their Worst Advice

If you’ve ever received unhelpful “words of wisdom” from a seemingly well-meaning individual…you’re not alone.

We asked five accomplished artists from various fields to share the worst advice they ever received – and how later experiences confirmed just how misguided the recommendation really was.

Here’s what they said.

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Being a creative is a lonely business. No one else is there at the inception of an idea. No one will discover fire for you. But there is often an audience of unwarranted opinions after you’ve gotten things going. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told – by people who appreciate my technique, but are a little uncomfortable with the content of my work – that I should broaden my work to garner more mainstream attention. It’s an age-old critique offered by people who (sometimes) mean well. In asking an artist to chip away at the things that make him or her unique, you’re asking them to dilute their point of view and render their identity moot. All of us have something personal and interesting to say. But if we censor ourselves so that we better fit with the current popular opinion, then, in my view, there is little point in speaking out at all.

There will always be a temptation to shift toward the center, because that is what is most palatable to wider audiences. But having a unique point of view is what got most of us where we are in the first place. Stick to your guns.

– Wale Oyejide, fashion designer for Ikiré Jones and visual artist

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This may not be advice, per se, but there was this notable caution. After the editor of a major publishing house swept assuredly in to buy my first book (we’d met at a conference) — after she enthusiastically assured me that I should not get an agent, that this book had already, decidedly, make no mistake about it found its home — the manuscript arrived on my front step many months later in a battered envelope. There was a note that essentially said, “Marketing has reviewed this book. It will never sell more than 3,000 copies. Any other house will conduct the same analysis and discover the same thing: You are too literary, destined for commercial failure. Sorry.” I promptly produced three more copies of the book, sent them (slush pile) to three prominent publishing houses and received a call on my birthday from a glorious editor. “Marketing doesn’t think this book will sell,” she said. “But we’re buying it anyway.”

The book did sell.

– Beth Kephart, author of 21 books and National Book Award nominee

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The worst advice I ever received was from a friend who urged me to keep the focus of the blog airtight. My blog, StreetsDept.com, is a photo-blog that documents and celebrates street art and graffiti in and around Philadelphia. My friend’s advice came after I started using my blog’s social media channels, namely its Instagram, to highlight some of my other photography work, as well as to advocate for certain social and civic issues.

His advice made a lot of good sense, but not for me.

I knew from the start that I would not be able to untangle the blog’s feel and focus from all the things that drove and impassioned me. Today, Streets Dept is much more than a street art blog. It has many more layers. And I don’t think it’d be nearly the success it is if it wasn’t. Something I am very grateful for.

– Conrad Benner, photographer and editor of the Philly arts blog, Streets Dept

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My late grandmother was a passionate and complex woman. She cried during the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful.” She believed dreadlocks grew long by applying cow manure. And she was a person who strongly believed in a lady covering up her body ­to keep from catching a cold and to keep from catching boys. It took until my adulthood to fully understand how absurd her advice of “the less skin you show, the more respected you’ll be” was. I’ve seen and experienced enough to now know that sexual harassment isn’t a piece of clothing, it’s a state of mind. Today, I stand beautiful in this skin of mine, with my grandmother’s smile and a head full of locs, looking back on how far my values have come. ­

– Alyesha Wise, poet and co-founder of The Philly Pigeon

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The worst piece of advice I was ever handed was “You’ve got to play the game.”

You have my word that you don’t. In fact, I strongly suggest ignoring the game and focusing on what’s going on under the bleachers, because that’s always more interesting. The minute an artist starts playing the game they stop being themselves and become interchangeable with any other artist who is more focused on their career than they are with their actual art. This is why there are so many horrifically dull bands currently wandering about the planet like extras from The Walking Dead. Everybody’s trying to use the same template for success: make an album that can be played over the sound system in a Starbucks; Tour; Tour Europe; Play on a Late Night Talk Show – preferably Kimmel or Fallon (anyone named Jimmy will do); Most of all – BE BORING!

The Sex Pistols didn’t change music for a generation because they went on the Bill Grundy show and played nice; they went on his show and acted like themselves. And a nation recoiled in horror. Picasso could’ve painted landscapes, but he painted nudes that caused riots!

– Rodney Anonymous, singer and songwriter for Philadelphia punk band The Dead Milkmen