There’s a popular quote floating around on the interwebs, stating that “comparison is the thief of joy.” I’ve never found a rock-solid origin for that quote, although it is most frequently attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Frankly, I think it sounds a little too touchy-feely to have come from the uber-manly 26th US president, who likely would have said something more along the lines of “Comparison is the enemy, and I have whipped its sorry butt with a really big stick.”
Regardless of its source, the quote has become a bit of a mantra for those of us in the arts. Conventional wisdom is that comparing ourselves to others – particularly our levels of success (or lack thereof) – is inherently a bad thing.
That way madness lies, we are admonished (while we’re sourcing quotes, that one is from Shakespeare’s oh-so-cheerful King Lear). It’s not a competition, and there’s room for all of us, we are advised, so we should just focus on our own stuff, rather than comparing ourselves to people who are probably in completely different situations than we are. Seems like sensible advice.
Sooooo, how are YOU doing with the whole not-comparing-yourself-to-others thing?
Me? Not so good.
Seems like recently I keep seeing people who do what I do, but who are doing it more successfully, and I find myself thinking: I just don’t get it. Why are these people so successful? Is what they’re doing really considered good these days?
This in turn leads me to question whether my own sense of what is (and isn’t) good has fallen out of step with the times. Or maybe it was never in step to begin with.
I mean, what if I’m completely wrong about what constitutes good art? What if I’ve been fooling myself all these years?
From there, the spiral accelerates and I soon find myself diving headfirst into the dreaded Cronin Crisis of Confidence®. Fun stuff. Right up there with a long, luxurious root canal.
Let’s look at a few examples…
Case #1: The not-so-good writing colleague
About a decade ago I became casually acquainted with a writer who was working on her first manuscript. As we were both members of a writing group, I got a chance to look at her work-in-progress.
It was not good. Seriously not good.
But it was a very different genre than I write, and she never directly asked me for my feedback, so I wisely kept my opinion to myself.
Over the years we’ve lost touch, but I still encounter her online from time to time, and I have to give her props for diligence: She kept pounding away, producing numerous manuscripts, and eventually succeeding in selling a novel. I checked out a sample online, to see if her writing had improved. The verdict? Nope. I was shocked and disappointed to see that it was still not good. Then she sold another book. And another. She now has a bunch of books out, some on small-press imprints, others self-published. Some of them seem to be selling well. And every sample I check out reveals the same thing: Writing that I think is flat-out bad.
Case #2: The “do as I say, not as I do” teacher
I’m a professional drummer, and one amazing resource that was not available to musicians back when I was first studying the instrument is a growing number of instructional videos on YouTube.
In addition to providing a wealth of information to aspiring drummers (and bagpipers, apparently), YouTube also offers a viable platform for musicians to brand and promote themselves as educators, along with the ability to monetize their videos using YouTube’s advertising mechanism. Just like there are “Instagram models,” there are now a wide range of “YouTube stars” known for their educational videos. Some have millions of subscribers.
One such “star” is a drummer who’s not known for any major recordings or for being part of any famous musical act, but who has carved out a massive following on YouTube as a drum educator. To his credit, he’s a strong communicator, has a pleasant demeanor, and explores some interesting topics, often highlighting the playing of other, far more famous drummers. But all of his videos also involve him sitting behind a set of drums and demonstrating some musical concepts himself.
And here’s the thing: He is a crappy drummer. Not just a non-virtuoso – this guy is awful. Weak, sloppy, no conviction, NONE of the positive attributes he is pointing out in the other drummers he features.
Multiple times I’ve had to stop myself from commenting on this guy’s YouTube page. But years ago I made a resolution to stop arguing with strangers on the internet, which I manage to stick to most of the time. (Hey, I said most.)
Case #3: The far more successful writer
I saved this one for last, because I suspect it will hit home most directly. There’s a novelist who’s been recommended to me repeatedly as being “in my wheelhouse.” (Not owning any particularly large wheels, I might question the need to devote an entire house for sheltering such a device, but I digress…)
This particular writer is known for being funny and irreverent, and for writing thought-provoking stories that tackle some big social and emotional issues. Okay, you have my attention. Several of his books have been adapted for major movies and/or TV shows. Okay, you REALLY have my attention. Oh, and he sells a lot of books. Okay already – I get it.
So I tried one of his books. Then another one.
Here’s the thing: I’m just not that into him. I find his characters overly stereotypical, his plot resolutions simplistic, and one of his books featuring a female main character struck me as little more than an adolescent male’s fantasy of how women think and behave. Seriously, all the major female characters – despite having a wide range of body types – managed to have very attractive breasts worthy of detailed description, and were literally one cocktail away from becoming spontaneously bisexual with each other. And yes, this book has been made into a TV series.
Seriously, I don’t get it.
But since I’m the kind of guy who puts the “anal” in analysis, I’m not content to simply sit around not getting something. No, I need to obsess a bit – Roosevelt be damned (or whoever the hell thinks comparison is such a joy thief). So I did some obsessing about each of these cases, and would now like to share my findings with the WU audience. (What can I say? I’m a giver.) But first, let’s look at another popular aphorism.
Wow, you really like quotations, don’t you, Keith?
Another commonly quoted piece of Internet wisdom is that “80 percent of life is showing up.” The exact phrasing of this sentiment varies, and its source has many potential attributions, but currently Woody Allen is the leading contender, according to this self-described “quote investigator” (a person with whom I suspect I would very much like to party). The point Woody (or whoever) is trying to make is that the people who make stuff happen first need to show up. If they don’t, nothing happens. And that’s a scenario with which I am deeply familiar.
By comparison (there’s that C-word again), I found one common thread among the three people I singled out: They are showing up.
For example, let’s look at my first case. I still maintain that her writing is awful. But dammit, she’s writing. A lot. Which in turn makes me ask myself: Have *I* been writing?
Um, no. And when I look at why not, the multiple excuses I raise all basically come down to fear. Fear of making a wrong decision, of getting started, of wasting time on a book that doesn’t sell – you name it. I’ve been in a kind of “decision paralysis” for longer than I’d care to admit. Bottom line, as a novelist, I haven’t been showing up.
Okay, let’s move on to the internet drum guru who couldn’t play his way out of a paper bag. (Note: It would take a really, REALLY big paper bag to contain an entire set of drums, but perhaps I’m raising that point to delay the inevitable comparison to which I’m about to subject myself). With nearly 250 videos on YouTube, it’s safe to say this guy is showing up. Cursed with an inquiring mind, I am compelled to ask myself: Have *I* made any instructional videos?
Again, no. And again, the excuses begin to fly. There are far more qualified drummers than me out there, so who am I to put out videos telling people how to play? And hey, most video cameras I’ve encountered all seem to malfunction: For some reason they all make me look bald and overweight. (Must be a lighting thing.) Inevitably, as I analyze the rationalizations for my lack of an online drumming-video oeuvre (a word I still haven’t bothered to learn to pronounce), a familiar theme emerges: Fear.
Finally, let’s move on to Mr. Sells Way More Books than Keith. In my defense, I still maintain that he’s not all that funny, and fails to uncover truly deep insights. You know what’s next. Here come the questions: Have *I* written about sex as candidly as he does? Have *I* explored the sexual drives and issues of somebody outside of my gender like he has? Have *I* tackled big social issues the way he has? Have *I* touched on highly topical, youth-oriented subjects – you know, like this guy has?
No, not so much.
This time I have even more excuses. A plethora, even.
I mean, my daughter reads my stuff. How can I write candidly about sex? And if I did, how would other people react? They might think I’m a pervert, or repressed, or abnormal, or a prude, or, or, or…
And okay, I haven’t tackled the Big Issues yet, but hey, I’ve only written a couple of novels so far. (We will ignore the fact that Mr. Big Author’s debut novel was made into both a movie AND a TV series. His freaking debut novel. No, I don’t hate him. Not very much, at least.)
But hey – this guy is way younger than me, so he’s in a better position to write about the hot current topics, right? (Damn you, Wikipedia, for revealing that this guy is not even two years younger than me. And he still has his hair. Okay, now I hate him with the heat of a thousand suns. But in a nice, respectful way, of course.)
Variations on a theme
As you have likely noticed, a recurring theme has again raised its hideous head: Fear. I’ve got no shortage of excuses, but they all come down to me being afraid. And they all result in me not showing up.
But these three people I’ve been talking about? They are getting the recognition I crave (and let’s be honest: I must crave it, or why would I be complaining about other people getting it?). And one of the ways they’re getting it is by simply showing up. I might think I can do better, but I’m sure as hell not proving it.
Of course, I haven’t walked in their shoes, so I don’t know whether they experience the kind of fear that’s holding me back. I’m guessing they do, at least to some extent, because nearly every other artist I know experiences it in some form or another. But if they do, it’s not stopping them from showing up.
Dang, all this comparing *is* kinda thieving my joy. But I’m also learning something important from the process. I need to freaking show up. And as I ponder this, I’m realizing something else:
This applies to more than writing.
Think about the people we admire. People who are taking a stand about their beliefs and values. People who are living exciting, adventurous lives. People who are bearing unbelievably heavy burdens with a grace and determination we doubt we could match. People who actually go to the damn gym. What do they have in common? You know the answer: They’re all left-handed vegans. Okay, I’m kidding. The REAL answer is: They all show up.
So rather than making a whole stack of new year’s resolutions this year, I’m going to keep things simple. I resolve to show up.
I briefly thought about making that a pithy two-part resolution: Show up or shut up. But based on a statistical analysis of decades of my own behavior, it’s safe to conclude that shutting up is just not something I can do, so I guess I’m stuck with showing up.
Hope I see you out there with me!
How about you?
How do you react when you see people lauded for things that you just don’t get? Do you agree with my showing-up assessment as a primary driver for their success? Are you a left-handed vegan? Please show up in the comments section below (see what I did there?), and as always, thanks for reading!