Blank Canvas Paralysis

17 February 2012. Filed under category Life.
Facing the blank canvas.

Facing the blank canvas.

Whenever you are about to start something new, you risk ‘Blank Canvas Paralysis’, the inability to get started. It is frightening, frustrating and causes you to doubt yourself, but once recognized for what it is, it loses some of its power and you can find ways to deal with it.

Here is what Van Gogh had to say about it:

You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’. […] but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can’t’ once and for all.

However, it is not only painters who face the blank canvas. Everyone eventually faces its petrifying stare. Retirement is a common blank canvas, paralysing in its vast expanse of freedom. Leaving university is another. Becoming a nomad is a third.

The nomadic life is a road less travelled, and thus there aren’t many ready-made role models to be inspired by. You will have to find your own damn way. Also, few geo-static people have geo-independent work, so when they become nomads, they will have to give up or drastically change their career.

This is where I stand right now. I have no idea what I am going to do with my work-life. The problem is not that I am lacking options. The problem is that as I stare at this blank canvas, Medusa stares right back at me, and I am petrified.

The three causes of Blank Canvas Paralysis

Too many options

Too many options

Too many options

Small fish swim in shoals to defend themselves against bigger fish. The big fish simply can’t focus on any one little fish long enough to catch it. It is the same thing with a blank canvas. You can paint an infinite number of things, and the choice is paralysing. Should you paint a fruit bowl? A landscape? Some red rhombi against a blue background?

The nomadic life has an awful lot of freedom, and it can be difficult to choose what to do with it. Do you go to Argentina, Italy or China? Will you work as a bartender, web designer or travel photographer?

To deal with the too-many-options problem, you should recognize that the problem only arises if the options are roughly equally good. If one option was clearly better than the rest, then the choice would be obvious. Similarly, if any of the options were clearly worse than the rest, then you wouldn’t have it in your short list to start with. (I am, for example, not considering to support my nomadic life by selling my internal organs.)

Having realized this, you can simply pick one of your options at random. After all, you can’t go too far wrong since the options are roughly equal. And in most cases, you can go back and make the choice again. Sometimes you just need to try a few things to see what sticks. Trying too hard to make the perfect choice first time around can waste a lot of time, cause an awful lot of stress and is still not a guarantee that you will make the ‘right’ choice.

Where to start?

Where to start?

Where to start?

Once you’ve decided what to do, the second part of the Blank Canvas Paralysis comes into effect. Where do you start? Most things roll on quite naturally once you have some momentum, but like in physics, getting something moving from standstill requires extra force.

Richard Diebenkorn (20th century American painter) said this about how to get started.

What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.

It is the same with most things. It doesn’t matter so much where you start; the important thing is that you start. So start with something small. (Buy paint brushes.) If your mind still winces at this small first step, make it tiny. (Google the nearest arts and crafts shop.)

What you should not do is plan excessively. Planning is not starting! Excessive planning is procrastination in disguise. It is the illusion that there is a perfect road to success.

There are two problems with over-planning. 1) You never start. 2) You lock your thinking into patterns based on the best ideas you have before you start, making you less flexible and open to the better ideas you’ll have half-way through your project.


Don't be this guy!

Do not be this guy!

The third cause of Blank Canvas Paralysis is the fear of failure. The subconscious argument goes like this. “I don’t dare to start this thing, because once I’ve started it, I will have put my self-esteem on the line. If it doesn’t work out, then I will have failed and thus be a failure. It is safer if I wait until I know for certain that it will succeed.”

Fear can keep us from doing stupid things, like betting the house on your new crochet business. But if the fear of failure itself is keeping you back, then it is time for me to dish out some tough love and break the news to you.

Not starting because you are afraid you will fail is in itself a failure!

You though it. You dreamt it. You want it. Don’t kid yourself that not giving it a go will save you from not feeling like a failure; you will feel like (and be) twice the failure for not even having had the guts to give it a go!

Ask yourself the following. Have you ever looked at someone who bright-eyed tried something new and exciting, bravely declaring that he has no idea if he is good enough to make it work but that he is willing to give it a try anyway, and when he only half-succeeds, have you ever thought of him as a failure? Or have you thought of him as brave and admirable?

The trick is this. Don’t say that you will succeed. It will make you seem cocky and arrogant. People love to see cocky and arrogant people fail. Instead, say that you will give it a try despite not knowing if you can do it. People will respect you for being humble enough to recognize that you might not make it, and they will respect you twice over for daring to do it anyway!

They fail, and they alone, who have not striven. — Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Getting Things Done

Once you’ve gotten started with your new project or ‘thing’, then comes the question of how to best follow it through. Also, if you have a lot of ‘things’ going on, it can be difficult to manage them all without loosing track of both your todo list and sanity.

By far the best productivity system I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a lot of them!) is Getting Things Done. I wrote a guide to GTD which explains the system in more details.

Travel Updates

I’m now in Crans-Montana with Peter, a friend of a London friend. I’m skiing here for a week. Then I will spend a week in London and a week in Long Beach before arriving in Buenos Aires where I plan to stay for a few months.

If anyone know of a place to stay in Buenos Aires, or have suggestions for what to do there, let me know!


How do you deal with a blank canvas?

Skip to bottom
  1. Bee says:

    It’s amazing how your post always coincides with something in my life. I am about to make a leap of faith and go on my own adventure, I am afraid but I an both excited and curious.

    A blank canvas usually causes me to procrastinate which is something I’ve been trying to overcome. What I do now is just take it one day at a time. I don’t look at all the details and try to figure everything out because it just stifles me and I’ll never start. I just have an idea of what I want and then daily work towards it, I fall off the wagon but get back on.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Yes, it is an amazing coincidence, isn’t it? Next week I’ll be writing about how you can hack into someone’s computer in order to read their e-mail and see their every move through their webcam. (Btw, I love the new curtains!)

      Anyway, what I meant to say was that your message reminded me that this post is closely related to Getting Things Done, which I wrote about earlier. GTD is a really good system for doing just that, Getting Things Done.

      1. Bee says:

        Fantastic I’ll look out for the next article since chasing you around from place to place has been quite taxing so if I can just peek from the computer screen that would just be oh so wonderful.

        Definitely I read the GTD article a few times, it’s very helpful.

  2. BrotherMichael says:

    Re: “…Excessive planning is procrastination in disguise. It is the illusion that there is a perfect road to success…
    …You lock your thinking into patterns based on the best ideas you have before you start, making you less flexible and open to the better ideas you’ll have half-way through your project.”

    Very insightful.

    Thank you.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      It is always good to know which parts of a post jumps out at people. Thank you for the comment!

    2. Rich says:

      Absolutely agree with this part – I almost always start my projects more than once – the first time around is really a fact-finding exercise, to make the concepts involved clearer to me. If I realise I planned with too many ideas left out, I start again…


  3. Joel Oswaldo says:

    Hola Gustavito. I feel very identified whit this post. Sometimes in my life, the fear has paralized me, I think is a natural fear to the change, to leave my comfort zone, but at the same time, I´ve always felt it´s no good to me to stay for a long time in the same place, doing the same things. And I have done, I´m happy cuz I´m the responsable for the changes in my life. Your post is like a “very little” guide to understand that kind of feelings, maybe is a good idea to get the GTD you mentionated.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Fear comes in many flavours, so perhaps you experiencing something quite different. But I had a period of paralysing fear back in 2011 when I decided to leave my old life in London and become a nomad. Perhaps you might like to read what I wrote about that back then?

  4. Allan says:

    Sometimes I do wish my life was a blank canvas. The first thing that would go on my canvas would be my beautiful and loving husband Junior and then my family. Everything else I would have to think about. For example I have a good job which I studied for years to get, and I love it, but we only live once and I would love to do something totally different. I would love to have the choice again that I had at 17. Think about it, you can choose to be an artist, a doctor, tree surgeon, modern nomad etc and then maybe spends a few years learning all about it. What older person would not give their right leg for that choice? Then there is my adopted home, London, where I have lived for 21 years. I love London now as much as I did when I first arrived off the boat from Ireland as a fresh faced chicken, but, again, there is so much more to the world and I would love to experience living in another European city, in the countryside, in NYC or Miami, in Lagos or Mumbai, etc. I wish also that my blank canvas would allow me to correct the mistakes I have made along the way, but that of course would be asking too much. Je ne regrette rien, I should probably say. I suppose the hardest thing is to realise that life really is a blank canvas, like you have Mr. Andersson, and that the only thing stopping us doing things are ourselves. Allan PS: Good luck in the blog awards, you deserve a win, my vote already cast (not for your site though – only joking).

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you Allan! That nicely summed up my motivation for becoming a nomad. I too have that greedy sense that there is so much to be explored in this world, and I don’t think I have the time to do the same thing or live in the same place for years and years. I might miss out on some depth, but for me, I reckon it is a worthwhile trade-off.

  5. PDragon says:

    Why not try the I Ching method of decision making? let fate decide for you. That how I became the only freelance rhubarb cultivation consultant in the Sahara desert, I have zero competition in my chosen profession.

  6. Fear can keep us from doing stupid things, like betting the house on your new crochet business.

    Quote of the day! And now, I am going to sell all my belongings to become the Queen of Crochet. Except I no longer have belongings, unless you count the one pair of putrid pants I wear while I travel around the world belongings. I think I could get a shiny rock for it.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      He he. I guess one quick way to become a nomad would be to bet the house and loose it!

  7. Daphney says:

    Yes this blog really goes to me.. like a hot potato. I am going to face the realms and take it slow. The right Light comes in the right time. nice blog, and thanks to you.

  8. Layla says:

    I was given the link to your blog a few months ago by two dear friends, Sylvia and Yasmina, who are my souls sisters. I read a few entries, and then am sorry to say, but forgot about it. I was just looking at some of the comments on my own blog, and saw Sylvia’s link to your blog. I randomly clicked on tis post, and you have no idea how as a world nomad myself, how this resonates with me. I have literally so many options at my feet right now, and a seeming pressure that I am placing on myself now to make some so-called hard decisions. Will I be a human rights acitivist,at the front line, fighting alongside the world’s oppressed? Will I live in Mexico, Colombia, Brasil, the US, or even return to England? Will I work as a teacher, or a photographer, or a journalist? Will I ever fall in love? What if the decisions I make don’t make me happy and I need to re-think my life all over again? What will friends and family think of me if I don’t end the occupation of Palestine, or make some huge impact in the world? What is an impact and who is measuring it? Your wise words have helped to soothe me to some extent, and so I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Keep sharing your thoughts, and if you have a moment, I would love to hear your thoughts on my posts. Bless you. I feel like I may have stumbled upn an angel, and all on a day when if my mum hadn’t been killed in a car crash, we would have celebrated her 60th birthday xx

    1. Thank you for your comment. Any friend of Sylvia is a friend of mine!

      Sometimes we stare ourselves blind on having goals. We sit down and follow the gurus’ advice to soal search and find what we are meant to do, and then go for it, like it was a two-step process. It rarely is. Few have clearly defined goals. So what do we do if The Goal hasn’t come to us yet? We move aimlessly for a while, following whims and enjoy the sceneries. We take a few selfies (I read that post of yours) and enjoy the world around us. We let it draw out of us our passions and interests. And then, if we stay alert enough to see it when it appears, The Goal slowly emerges out of those passions and interests.

  9. Layla says:

    Thanks for your reply. I think I am in this space where I am perhaps feeling a pressure, placed on me by me and by hegemonic societal views on a conventional life path. Study, start a career, find a partner, buy a house, have kids, retire and die. I was born to completely unconventional parents and luckily haven’t had pressure from my dad to pursue the aforementioned trajectory. I guess I have had the privilege of this year being able to do what you mentioned, move aimlessly and see what this life’s goal is. And what I have realised, is it is fine to have many goals, and many passions. I wonder how I can combine them now. Hmmm…

  10. […] Taken from: […]

How do you deal with a blank canvas?

Click to see allowed HTML.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <ol> <ul> <li>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.