Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

What It Takes to Become a Real Artist

“Taco leg!” my son screamed while I carried him wrapped in a towel to his bed after his bubble bath.

What It Takes to Become a Real Artist

“Taco leg?” I asked Aiden, repeating the term just to make sure I heard him correctly.

“A taco leg,” he said matter of factly, “is a taco that has one leg on the bottom.”

Of course. Makes sense. Why didn’t I think of that?

As Aiden got ready for bed, something dawned on me. My son is the most creative he’s ever been. At nearly four years old, he makes up songs and stories all day long. He dances like no one’s watching.

And believe me, everyone is watching.

Just the other night, while we were eating dinner, he started singing this song:

“Feel the day. Feel the day. Feel, feel, feel the day. Can you feel the day? Grow and rain. Sprinkle and feel the day. Daddy, this is called ‘Feel the day.’ It’s a song about when Jesus goes up in the sky and drops popsicles on the ground and people lick them.”

Huh. Okay, then.

An anchorman is born

As a child, I, too, made up things. Stories. Songs. Plays. You name it. I was constantly creating. Most kids do. Recently, I thought back to seventh grade home room.

Our teacher, Mrs. Frankl, would have us students rotate every day, taking turns to share the news with the rest of the class. The night before, you would watch the news, take notes on the major events and weather, and then share that report the next morning in class. I suppose it was an attempt to raise good news-watching citizens, but I didn’t see it that way.

When Mrs. Frankl asked me to read the news, I saw it as an opportunity to break a few rules.

So I borrowed my dad’s video camera, put on one of his ties, slicked my hair back, and gave the performance of a lifetime. The next day, my teacher and friends were taken aback when instead of reading a piece of paper, I pulled out a VHS and popped it into the VCR.

One time, I used a rather, shall we say, abstract drawing from my six-year-old sister and pretended it was a weather map. Another time, I played multiple characters. Each and every time, it was new, which was what I loved about it.

How not to change the world

I’ve retained some of my theatrical tendencies over the years, but many have fallen away—not simply due to lack of practice but out of fear of judgment.

I am afraid about this for Aiden. Soon, he might be too afraid to making things up on the spot. Soon, he might be ridiculed at school for spontaneously singing or moving his body to the beat. He might stop telling stories or making up words. And that’s when he will have to learn an important rule:

You don’t change the world by following the rules.

If you want to make anything significant, you must challenge the status quo. You must embrace being a misfit, at least temporarily, if you endeavor to make anything original and useful.

The process of becoming an artist begins with embracing the things that make us stand out.

Band of misfits

Let’s be honest. Everyone is a misfit at something — particularly in youth. In our youth, we often embrace these traits but shun them as we get older. They may be our sensitivities or special abilities or certain areas of interest — anything that makes us different or unique.

We tend to avoid these things, because most attention leads to shame and embarrassment. So, we blend in, not just for a few insignificant years of pre-adolescence but sometimes for the rest of our lives.

This is the way of the old rules of creativity, which were designed to keep you in line, to make you fit in. But sometimes, these are the very things that will make you more creative. Consider, for a moment, this question:

What if whatever you thought held you back was the very means to success?

Being a misfit, at times, can be a gift. Or it least it can be. I don’t mean to mitigate the pain or struggle not fitting in can cause.

Don’t let shame stop you

For much of my youth, I was picked on, beat up, and ostracized. I had few friends and often dreaded going to school. But there is an advantage to being an outcast. It affords you the opportunity to buck the status quo, avoid the road most traveled, and do what must be done.

That’s what I hope my son learns as he gets older, or at least doesn’t forget. But Aiden isn’t the only one we should be concerned about.

At some point, we’ve all been shamed into not sharing our gifts with the world. We’ve all been told what we have to contribute doesn’t matter and won’t pay the bills. We’ve all considered sticking with careers we don’t love because they’re outwardly successful.

But I don’t buy any of that anymore. I believe in something better, a future where my son can be himself and won’t be asked to conform and be something he is a not. A world free of the old rules and filled with taco legs.

What does it take to become an artist?

  • First, you have to embrace the fact that, in some way, you are a misfit.
  • Second, start seeing the things that make you stand out as assets instead of as liabilities.
  • Third, use what you tend to think as your biggest disadvantages and start leveraging those as advantages.

Do those things and you will stand out. You will be weird. And you will be on your way to becoming an artist.

How did you embrace creativity as a kid? What do you need to see differently to become the artists you used to be? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Nice, Jeff!

  • Ken Hughes

    “You find the little guy in your head who’s been screwing up your life. You chase him down and trap him in a corner. But you don’t kill him–that’s too good for him. You put him to work. The little bastard works like a demon once you get him in harness.””
    –Stephen King, IT

  • Neal Eckert

    Great thoughts, Jeff! You’re right on in this article. I’m just starting to discover in my life what you shared today. You helped me see a little further down the path 🙂

  • Jeff, I can relate to this post on a few different levels. I also used the latest VHS technology when I was a kid, to create some newscasts which are now prime comedic entertainment for my kids. As well, I was just thinking last night about some art that my middle son has on his wall. He produced a flurry of paintings between 4 and 7 years old but now he rarely sits down to paint or draw unless we are telling him to make a birthday card. It’s weird how we all consider ourselves artists until we get to grade 4-6 and then suddenly we stop.

    I think in part it is due to a toxic system of comparison that we are drawn into that convinces us to give up when our art isn’t as good as others. This speaks to your point about misfits. If our education system and parenting approaches created more room for individual learning styles and unique talents expressed in uncommon forms we might help retain the creativity that our children our inherently gifted with.

    The truth is that we drive it out of them. We tell them they have to be the same. They have to draw within the lines. And they shouldn’t stand out as a misfit.

    I hope that I’m able to cultivate a greater appreciation for my kids’ creativity as they continue to grow. I know that I need to think back to those times when I embraced play and art with abandon and just let it fly because I wasn’t afraid.

    • Calvin,
      This is true. I taught grades 1- 5. The other teachers liked to place the “misfits” in my class but I didn’t believe in sitting in seats, or doing copy work. I left it to the students to create, to write, to produce radio shows. I loved to see their creativity. I hated “work sheets”. I wanted them to read and then involve themselves in the story and create their own stories.

      • That should have been “because I didn’t believe in … “.

  • As a 5th grader we had an assignment. Write a creative piece. And so I went to work. I decided to share about my shadow. A shadow who followed me everywhere. But it wasn’t about my shadow at all, it was about my 3 year old brother who stuck to me like glue. And the judges thought it was creative enough to be one of the winners. So downtown Chicago I went on the El to read my winning entry on the radio. Got my first taste of writing, and I was hooked.

  • I really enjoyed this post! You are spot on about losing what we love because of others’ opinions. I wrote until I was 30 as a hobby and quit because it seemed to be a waste of my time. When I turned 57, I could not stand living a life without creativity and began writing again. Now, I am paid to write many different things as a freelance writer. Most importantly, I now teach and encourage budding journalists. My life’s ambitions are finally realized! I thank you for much of this.

    • N K

      Wow so inspiring that you decided to pursue your passion at 57 🙂

  • Raymond Mhamba

    I never comment, but damn!! You have spoken to my soul today Jeff. Thanks a lot. Your son is truly blessed to have a wonderful father who understands misfits. God Bless you brother with all the love there is in existance.

  • Sohma Rae Hathaway

    Jeff, thanks for sharing. I love it as always. I may have told you that when I was 5 years old my teacher gave us and art assignment. I was very excited about this because I didn’t feel I had strengths in other subjects. She said she would play music and we were to draw whatever it made us think of. The music was strongly Native American. I didn’t notice this but most kids drew pictures of teepees and Indians. I was intrigued by the loud drumbeats and vocals ranges that jumped quickly from high to low notes. I wanted each note to be represented on my paper so I drew what ended up looking like a lot of scribbling. I thought it was brilliant but when I showed it to my teacher she said I didn’t follow directions. I was crushed. Luckily I didn’t let that stop me. I’ve always seen things differently. At times I’ve allowed distractions to keep me from creating. Some were worthy. Others were not.

  • Cali Bird

    Thanks Jeff. This was a moving read. It is painful to not fit in when you are a kid. It has taken me many years of adulthood to embrace who I really am, weirdness and all.

  • Mark S. Morano

    Jeff, Thanks for sharing this post – it brought me to tears

  • Fran

    I believe I have passed the course as the name of my blog is: Living Weird !(www.livingweird.com) Thank you for this validating article!

  • Scribener


    Thank you for writing so well about the things you do. Your blog has been a huge encouragement to me as I chase some of my dreams, and your insights and practical advice have been incredibly helpful. Thank you, and please don’t stop.


  • Jeff, your post validates the counterintuitive approach. Leverage what makes you different and you’ll stand out. Isn’t that what Lady Gaga did?!

  • Arul John

    First, you have to embrace the fact that, in some way, you are a misfit.
    Then see the things that make you stand out as assets
    And then use what you tend to think as your biggest disadvantages and start leveraging those as advantages.
    Thanks for sharing this Jeff. I needed to be reminded of this.:)

  • Very interesting.

  • I needed to hear this so much. It’s easy to get caught up in people-pleasing and trying to figure out the “rules,” instead of letting your imagination guide you. Breaking the rules takes a lot of confidence!

  • Rod Robinson

    Jeff, Good post, but it’s also true that one has to have some respect for some of the rules. Many good people have had significant impact while staying within an overall societal structure. Some of those rules give us the protection and freedom we must have to be individuals and creative. The secret is knowing what rules to bend/break and when.

    • Yes, of course. By “rules,” I am more referring to the status quo.

  • Fantastic post! This hit home for me on so many levels, especially the bit about being shamed out of sharing our gifts. I always thought it was interesting that on the one hand we’re told to be ourselves and to follow our dreams, but when we do it is promptly met by those same people crying “not like that!” You really do have to learn to drown out all the noise and just continue being your weird self with pride.

  • Tyler

    Human brokenness is heartbreaking. I’m glad Aiden has a dad like you to encourage him along the way. Thanks for sharing, Jeff.

  • Banu

    Goins, good post ,…


  • Anna Turnitsa

    Thanks for the interesting post. I like pondering over your question about what holds us back may be the key to our success. Still, “The process of becoming an artist begins with embracing the things that make us stand out.”–Goins This statement resonated with me. I’m not sure what makes me stand out, however, when I discover it; I may also find the key to success.