A Habit of Competition — Why Artists Constantly Compare Themselves To Other Artists and What We Should Do Instead
Art forms that require a team to succeed (i.e. film) are extremely hard to break into and, up until recent years, there were only 2 or 3 regions in the United States dishing out quality films on a regular basis. Thanks to the DSLR generation and the ability to crowd fund your projects, there are teams all over the world creating films and finding success. However, it still seems that this elitist, competitive mindset exists. I can see it in myself when I watch a film that someone around my age made. Instead of finding inspiration in them, in the fact that I am not alone in this, that maybe we could collaborate on a project / share what we’ve learned, I critique their film to no end, analyze and quantify every single one of the film’s mistakes and shortcomings. Sometimes, it feels like I’m thinking ‘only one of us can make it.’ That somehow I have to bring them down to validate my own existence in this fiercely competitive industry.
But why must we, as artists, constantly compare ourselves to every other artist around us doing anything remotely close to what we happen to be interested in?
I think it is because art is so subjective. I find it hard to analyze my own work, I immediately see what I did wrong, but I do not want to take the time to recognize what I happened to do right. If I linger on it too long, I may discover something about my art I didn’t want to know, something that tells me I made the wrong decision to follow this dream so many years ago. When I finish a project, I watch it and let the satisfaction of creating something sink in. Then I watch it again, analyzing it to no end, obsessing over every element, what could have been done better so that I do not make the same mistakes in the future. Then I’m done with it. I’ve moved on. It’s like I’ve gotten it out of my system. I thoroughly believe in the concept of ’10,000 hours’, that artists have X number of bad works of art that they have to get out of the way before they find their style and can really start in on what they were put here to do. So when I’m done with a project, I distance myself from it. I made it, I learned from it, but its not a part of me anymore. I’m not the same artist that created that ‘bad project’, I’m better. I’m closer to my true self. I’m not going to make those same mistakes again.
That is healthy, it keeps us from getting upset over every small failure. It keeps us from staring into a foggy mirror, looking ourself in the eyes and yelling, “Are you reaching your full potential?” as a baby cries in the background. It helps us maintain sanity. It helps us look to the future, to go into the next project, hopeful, without the baggage of the last.
However, the problem with this way of thinking is that there is little validation in it. You know how good you could be, you know the ideas in your head are awesome, but there is little tangible evidence to back this up. You can’t point to your past projects for validation because those, in a sense, don’t exist and if they do, they certainly weren’t made by you. “That appears to be the work of a novice. I am a professional.” So, if you’re like me, then you HAVE to be constantly analyzing your decisions, quantifying your position, making sure you’re right on track with the grand life scheme in your head.
So if we have yet to produce any work, what then can we use as evidence to check our progress in life?
Well… Here comes the ridiculous part, the part I am working to overcome. The part that I didn’t understand for the longest time. We look to another artist we know and we look right past the successes they have achieved in their project (the same way we do with ourself). We analyze what they’ve done, zoomed in to a level that we cannot see the big picture, and we say to ourselves ‘I could do better than that. I see what they should have done there. They probably don’t see it. I must be the better artist. I’m going to make it.’ This is a toxic way of thinking. It detracts us from what our real mission should be… creation. Our goal should be to get the bad out of the way, to create as much as possible. Art is amazing. It improves the world. It’s what drives, inspires and entertains me. Artists are an enlightened group of people, trying to spread their personal truths to the rest of the world. Having this attitude towards other artists plants this idea in our head that they probably feel the same way about us, which stands in the way of our creativity and ideas coming to fruition.
Why are we constantly tearing down other artists?
It is hard to stay motivated without occasional validation. Some people need more validation than others to keep going, but the problem is that most artists don’t get that when they need it most. When they are just starting out and no one cares what they are doing. Artists should be providing that. We should be supporting other artists, giving them the validation they need. Not finding it for ourselves in their failures, but pointing it out for them in their successes. Sharing our knowledge with them, growing with them, advancing art as a whole. It’s a big world out there, there’s plenty of room, it is ridiculous to think that “only one of us can make it.” Artists should be supplying the validation other artists desire, not tearing them down in an attempt to monopolize it for ourselves. When we need to look to another artist to track our progress, we should look at the artist that created our last project (since that, technically, isn’t us anymore anyway, right?). We should be tracking the growth of artistic talent across time not individuals.
If you still need to compare yourself to another artist, don’t pick someone at the same level as you. Set your sights higher. Pick a professional, someone who has crossed the 10,000 hour threshold, someone who has found their style, someone who is drowning in validation. Then measure them up against those ideas, that vision in your head and decide for yourself where you are, assessing the positive and negative, and decide what you should and shouldn’t be doing.