Jealousy | Bad Habits, part 6

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning

Photo credit: Derek van Vliet

Our next guest needs, I think, no introduction. We’ve all experienced jealousy, and most of us have been told since childhood that it’s not the healthiest mental habit to indulge in. Creative jealousy is a special breed and in my experience it’s poison to the kind of creativity this book is about, Fearless Creativity.

In his extraordinary book ‘Effortless Mastery‘, jazz pianist Kenny Werner describes a moment of transformative clarity encapsulated in 4 simple words. He was listening, with a fellow pianist and friend, to an extraordinary performance by a classical virtuoso, and was in a kind of agony as he realized he would never play like that. He looked at his friend, who was transported by the beauty and perfection of the performance, and the friend looked back at him and said: “Be Friendly to yourself!”

Werner describes this as the moment when everything changed for him, but he never really defines exactly what this ‘friendliness’ means and why it’s so essential and powerful. I guess everyone needs to find out for themselves in the end… but I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and come up with three essential aspects of ‘friendliness’:

a) unconditional support and encouragement
b) honest criticism when needed, and
c) sincere praise when deserved.

These are things that I think we should extend to those closest from us, and that we should be able to expect in return from them. I think that ‘being friendly to ourselves’ means extending them to, and expecting them from, ourselves as well. Let’s take a closer look at each one, in the context of creativity:

a) unconditional support and encouragement… I think this is relatively easy. We want to be creative, even if it’s difficult sometimes. We don’t tend to beat ourselves up too badly for the basic impulse. But it’s a good idea to make it explicit anyway: you need to be unconditionally supportive and encouraging towards yourself in your creative endeavours, the same way you would with your closest friends. No matter what.

b) honest criticism when needed… We touched on this in the last chapter in the context of overconfidence. It’s completely destructive to believe that everything we do is brilliant, or that we ourselves are so talented that everything is fine and we don’t need to really work hard or apply ourselves to create masterpiece after masterpiece. Not many people really suffer from this, in my experience – there are more people sabotaging themselves with insecurities than with genuine overconfidence. However, again, let’s make it plain: you need to be able to take honest stock of where you’re at and what you need to work on. It doesn’t get us anywhere to pretend our weak points aren’t there.

c) sincere praise when deserved… I think this is the hardest one of all, but in some ways the most crucial. It’s also important to look at the more subtle layers of it; this isn’t just about patting yourself, or your friends for that matter, on the back. It’s about being able to recognize and acknowledge, in a genuine way, when we’ve done something really good, or beautiful, or fascinating. In the same way that it isn’t helpful to deny our weaknesses, it doesn’t get us anywhere to deny our moments of clarity and luminosity. I’ve known a number of highly creative people over the years who seem unable to let themselves accept that they did something well, and this seems to sabotage their ability to enjoy the whole process… this has always struck me as tragic.

Apples and Oranges

As subtly powerful as this Friendliness idea is, I’m aware that it’s not a magic pill that will instantly free us from deeply ingrained habits. And the habit of comparing ourselves to others, always judging our own worth and talents in comparison to the perceived worth and talents of others, is one of the most deeply ingrained habits there is.

This is true for most people on some level, I think – at least, that’s the conclusion that a lifetime of observation has led me to. However, in the context of creativity it’s especially poisonous, because our sense of self is often tightly bound up with what we do, what we create, what we feel we’re capable of.

It’s very easy to misjudge our own talents and those of others; we tend to downplay our own abilities, and overestimate those of others. Their work seems so effortless, so fully-formed and, most of all, so beyond us and our meager talents.

We forget the work that lies behind the work we see, and we forget to value what we can do that they can’t, the products of our own hard work and unique experience. In short, we lose sight of our own creative identity, our own amazing possibility, when we indulge in this kind of creative jealousy.

The Fame Game

It’s the same when it comes to judging success – we are unable to focus on our own success because we are distracted by that of others, and jealous of it – and by the feelings of unworthiness that come with that. We are especially jealous of people who are ‘famous’, whose work has led in one way or another to mass recognition, which our culture continually tells us is the ultimate measure of worth and talent.

Personally, I think that the cult of fame is an unmitigated disaster – generally, and more specifically with regards to creative work. I think we lost something very important when we made fame the goal of creative endeavour, and not only because not everyone can be famous.

There’s a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard where he talks about how the scale of recognition has changed in the last few hundred years. To paraphrase rather liberally (I haven’t read it in many years)… there was a time, not so long ago, when the village bard was likely the ‘best’ musician anyone in that village had ever heard. Everyone played a little music, but he or she was the specialist. Hardly anyone had ever travelled further than the next village, so opportunities to hear ‘world-class’ musicians were notably thin on the ground. So much so, in fact, that the very concept would have been alien and meaningless.

Now, however, if I happen to be the one on your block that specializes in music (assuming there aren’t eight or ten others), I’m up against the whole world. I have to compete for attention, appreciation and recognition with everyone who’s ever played a concert, released a CD or made a music video. Why would anyone pay attention to little old me? Our whole sense of what is good, what is talent, and above all what is successful has changed. Now it’s perspective that’s thin on the ground.

[I managed to track down the original passage, for those interested…]

Chasing shadows

So it’s not surprising that we respond with jealousy towards the famous. But in reality fame is mostly an illusion, and setting it – even unconsciously – as a goal is for most people antithetical to cultivating a genuine creative life. In fact, even if we could magically switch fame on, most of us would probably hate it and in fact we would likely self-destruct if we suddenly found ourselves in the limelight. Personally, I like a bit of privacy…

Why do we think we want fame? Why are we jealous of it? I suppose we think it would make everything easier… but I suspect that this is largely untrue. Sure, it would allow us to buy more things, live in bigger houses, stay in more exclusive hotels… but simpler? I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m pretty confident that it makes most things a lot more complicated. Do we really want to be those people we’re jealous of, so that someone else will be jealous of us? Does that really improve our lives in any meaningful way?

Moreover, fame requires intense focus and relentless hard work to maintain, as well as tremendous personal sacrifice and risk. Doubtless it would make paying the bills a bit easier, although there would also likely be a lot more bills to pay; but I’m really not at all sure it would make creating anything of value any easier at all, and quite possibly it would make it harder. Some people seem to handle this better than others…

I believe that it really is better to focus on hard work and creativity on our own terms, and define success as when those things are working, making us happy, and, for those who choose to make a living from their creative work, providing a reasonably comfortable and sustainable one. Jealousy about others’ fame kills that. Leave it behind.

Of course we cannot ever leave it entirely behind. These habits are very human and the best we can do is keep a close watch for them and try not to let them dominate us unconsciously.

I have a little mental game I play, which like all the others in this book is not intended as a ‘magic bullet’ but as something to think about. It’s this: when jealous thoughts inevitably do come up, I try to replace or at least match every jealous thought with one of gratitude. I think about something I do have that I should be more grateful for, take less for granted, and focus on that instead.

It’s not magic, but it helps.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

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