Episode 15


The Spotlight Effect and Creativity

About this episode

The Spotlight Effect is a pyschological phenomenon that can hold us back from putting our creativity out into the world. Find out more about it and how to work around it!

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The Spotlight Effect and Creativity

Have you ever not wanted to put out a piece of work because of a mistake that you think is so obvious that everyone’s going to see it? That’s the Spotlight Effect, let me tell you about it on today’s episode of The Positive Creatives.


Hey hey and welcome back to the Positive Creatives, or welcome for the first time if this is your first time here. I hope you enjoy this little bit of insight into the creative mind and the creative process and it helps you stay positive and creative!

So another week has passed. I can’t believe how time flies during these pandemic days. Today is the first step back towards a normal life here in England and I get to play tennis today which I’m exceptionally happy about!

I did an episode a few episodes back in Episode 10 about doing it for the love, and that’s definitely what it’s like with me and tennis. Last year I think I played about 100 matches and won just once. So you’d think that would be extremely unenjoyable but I absolutely love it. I love the game, I love to play. If I win it’s nice but the enjoyment is in the playing.

I learned a lot once I realised that. I’ve got a really competitive spirit, so it surprised me that I could play a competitive sport and not care about losing because I love the game so much.

Plus it’s not that I’m terrible at it, it’s just that I’m less good than the friends I play against!

So my analogy here is focus on playing not winning. Because if you focus on playing, and you love it regardless if you’re winning or not, you’re winning all the time.

The second thing I wanted to mention this week is that I’ve been quieter than normal on my instagram. I don’t know if you noticed. I’ve just had less to say this week. My mind has ground to a halt, I don’t know if it’s because it was our last full week of lockdown or what but I just couldn’t think of much to say.

Are you feeling the same? Or do you sometimes feel the same as that? And yet we’re told to always ‘show up’ on social media and how we should post three times a week, or daily or twice a day to stories or whatever so we can beat the algorithm, and it’s pressure and it’s stressful.

Well you know what – I have this personal mantra and I’ll share it with you.

When you’ve got nothing to say, say nothing.

Simple as that. It’s better to say nothing than to say something for the sake of saying something. Let your mind rest instead of forcing it to come up with something. There’s a Plato quote I love:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”

Now I’m not saying I’m a wise man, but now I’ve mentioned a Greek philosopher in the podcast it must count for something!

Anyway. This week I wanted to talk to you about another psychological phenomenon called The Spotlight Effect and how it applies to creativity and our work.

I found out about The Spotlight effect a few weeks ago I think on Instagram or Tiktok and made a note of it to either turn it into a reel or an episode. But I didn’t know anything about it so I needed to research it and I kept forgetting to do that, but this week I did sit down and spend some time reading about it and thinking about it.

I’ve covered a couple of other psychological things in previous episodes – the Dunning Kruger effect in episode one, and Impostor Syndrome in episode 7 so I’m neatly spacing out the psychological episodes by accident for you!

I think this also goes hand in hand with critique culture which I talked about in episode 2 briefly as well.

So The Spotlight Effect is a real psychological thing where we overestimate how much people notice about something physically. Most of the examples talked about online are not creative things – it’s like if you’ve got a zit on your face, or a spot of dirt on your clothes or something.

When there’s something about your appearance which you’re acutely aware of, you overestimate how much other people notice it, and maybe you even feel the need to mention it or apologise for it because you’re so convinced it’s all they’re thinking about too.

But have you ever noticed, for instance, maybe when you’re talking to someone else and they out of nowhere apologise for the dirt spot on their shirt and you hadn’t noticed it before, but now you really notice it?

Or – one of my pet hates – when someone says ‘sorry for the mess’ when you go round to their house, and it’s honestly immaculate but like there’s one kids toy out on the floor.

Yeah I know I know what does this have to do with creativity – don’t worry I’m getting there. I’m just doing that thing you do where you explain it in real life terms before getting a bit more conceptual.

So you get the point. Fundamentally The Spotlight Effect is how much we – our ego – thinks other people see what we see, physically. There’s also a similar effect called The Illusion of Transparency where we do the same for our feelings, but The Spotlight Effect is all about what people see, physically.

Now have you ever completed a piece of work and not wanted to show it to anyone or put it out into the world because of some tiny mistake – ok maybe not tiny to you at the time, but with rational hindsight you realise it’s tiny?

And the reason you don’t want to put it out because of this apparent glaring mistake is because you’re convinced that it ruins the piece, and it’s all people will see, and your reputation will be left in tatters?

So you bin it. Or you archive it. Or whatever. You can’t cope with people seeing that it’s red in the top corner when it was supposed to be blue, or whatever. You just know that if you put it out people will judge and mock and ridicule you because it’s so obviously not supposed to be red there.

That’s The Spotlight Effect at work. That so-called mistake in your work is the zit on your face or the spot on your clothes.

So how do we get around it?

I mean it’s cool to know this thing exists and it’s part of the reason for our irrational behaviour but what does that help? Well luckily there are some ways to combat it and get past it. And the point of that is that more of our work makes it into the big wide world and sets the butterfly effect in motion.

And if you’ve listened to many of my episodes you’ll know really the underlying point of most of what I say is that I want the world to see more of your work, and I want you to feel better about it too and hold less of it back.

So the first thing to know is that nobody knew it was supposed to be blue but turned out red.

Nobody knows what the initial idea looked like and that it ended up looking different to that, or not quite living up to what you had in your head.

We go through the whole creative process when creating something new, and not much of that is seen in the final product. So when a viewer sees, reads, listens to your work or whatever, they don’t see the process, they just enjoy how it turned out. They don’t sit and analyse and say ‘well clearly this part was supposed to be red’.

Just in the same way that they don’t notice that you’re having a bad hair day, or didn’t iron one arm of your shirt, or have a speck of dry ketchup on your jeans.

They’ll see it if you apologise for it. They’ll 100% see it then. They might even say “well I think it looks great blue” and you’d say either in your head or out loud “you’re just saying that, but thanks, it would’ve looked so much better in red”.

Am I taking this blue and red analogy too far or are you getting the gist?

So realise that your viewers, fans, followers and customers will enjoy the piece for what it is. Don’t apologise for so-called mistakes that they won’t even see, just put it out and let it be. That’s how it turned out.

The next thing I learned about is something called self-distancing, and actually I think this is really, really hard to do but I’m mentioning it anyway so I sound clever and learned and stuff like that.

I just mentioned that we’re extremely close to a piece of work, we see all the steps it took to become the final product it is. Through self distancing we need to learn to appreciate our work as a viewer or listener, rather than the creator.

I read some bizarre tips about how you should talk to yourself in the third person to do this. Like when I’m not sure about a photo I should say “what does Adam think of this” and have some odd conversation with myself. I’m not so sure about that.

But somehow we should do this self distancing thing and take a big old step back, shut our ego out of the room for a minute, and have a word with ourselves. Because be under no illusion The Spotlight Effect is an ego problem.

Something else you can do is ask yourself… if a friend came to you with this piece of work, showed it to you and told you it was ruined because that bit was supposed to be red. And you’re like “what the blue bit?!” and they say yeah so I’m putting it in the bin. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way…

What would you say to that friend? Would you let them put their work in the bin and hide it from the world? Or would you encourage them, tell them if they hadn’t ever mentioned it you wouldn’t see what they’re telling you is so bad, and help them see the work more rationally?

Exactly, of course you would.

And that’s a general tip that doesn’t only apply to the spotlight effect – whenever you’re struggling or feeling negative ask yourself if a friend came to you with the same problem what advice would you give to them.

The last thing is you could ask for critique on the work. But you need to know I have a problem with critique culture in creative arts. I mentioned it briefly in episode 2, but critique culture especially in photography has been a big thing the last few years, and if you ask for critique on your work you’re asking for them to look for problems. And if you’re being asked to critique someone’s work, even if you’re being constructive about it, you’re going to look for problems with it. So I’m not a lover of critique culture at all. Art is subjective, that person wasn’t there when you were making it, and unless you ask 50 people or more for critique you won’t get a balanced or constructive view. So I’m mentioning it but I’m saying I don’t recommend it.

If you really, really can’t get past that it’s red and not blue even after self distancing, then put it away for a bit. Let it be. Then come back to it with fresh eyes when you’ve detached from it and try again when you’re feeling more rational.

Don’t let The Spotlight Effect hold you back from showing your work to the world. When we show our work to the world something magical happens, and we’re more able to move on freely to the next thing and the next thing. The butterfly effect is in motion – you don’t know who will see your work or where, and what that may lead to.

Sometimes things that have felt like my worst work have really resonated with people and surprised me, and when that happens it gives you the confidence to keep creating.

Alright here’s this week’s listen, read, watch recommendations:

Listen is the new Ben Howard album “Collections from the Whiteout” which is pretty great!

Read is a short book called Speed of Sound, Sound of Mind by Roger Cruickshank and Don MacNaughton. I was Roger’s wedding photographer back in 2014 and his story is so inspirational.

Watch is the film High Fidelity, even if you’ve seen it before which you probably have. I watched it a lonnnng time ago and just watched it again this weekend. It may not do much for your creativity but you’ll enjoy it, and the soundtrack is great and there was a great quote which I wrote down: “It’s about what you like, not what you’re like.” Made me think.

Ok friend I’ll see you back here for the next episode of The Positive Creatives!

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