I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how easy it is to get distracted from our work. Sure, I can get distracted walking from one room to another, but what I’m talking about runs deeper: I’m talking about getting distracted from who we are.
We’re all here to do our own unique work, to contribute our individual gift. It can be hard to pin down exactly what that gift is and we might find the way it is expressed shifting as we move through time and our lives change. Yet, our purpose is like a skeleton, giving us shape and supporting our every action. Even the word “backbone” has become synonymous with courage or will – the determination to do what we need to do.
As artists, we can get distracted from what is really ours to do when we fall prey to comparison or criticism. This doesn’t mean that we never allow ourselves to be influenced by the work of others, nor does it mean that we never listen to honest feedback; both of these things can help us learn, grow, and become more skilled. It means we need to stand solidly in who we are, and use that to help us decide what to take in and what to release.
When we compare our work to the work of others, there is an opportunity and a risk. We risk dismissing the other person’s work as worthless and we risk idolizing the other’s work. By dismissing the other person and their work, we minimize what it is that they are here to do. We risk invalidating their perspective because it doesn’t match ours, because we are afraid that what they do might invalidate what we do. By idolizing the other person’s work, we risk hiding our own gift as we try to make ourselves over in another’s image. We risk invalidating our own work. Either way, we get distracted from what is ours to do.
"Comparison is an act of violence against the self." - Iyanla Vanzant
The opportunity of comparison lies more in simply looking at the work of other artists. We might discover something that we want to integrate into our own work or, we might discover the thing that makes our work uniquely ours.
Criticism can be another kind of comparison. When done poorly, criticism can tear us down and judge us based on criteria and standards we never aspired to. It can distract you from what is really yours to do. When done well, it can lead us to ask new questions, build skills, and clarify our purpose. The artists of the Impressionist movement were criticized for painting common subjects and using bold color; but the Impressionists were concerned with capturing a moment in time and studying the effects of light. The Impressionists had completely different goals than the established art community. After being rejected by juried salons, they staged their own showings of their work and stayed true to their intentions. Yet, even among them, there was disagreement about what made a “good” painting.
The more afraid we are, the more unsure of what we want our own art to say, the easier it is for us to be distracted by comparison or criticism. Life is an exercise in discovering the work we are here to do, and then sticking to it. Comparing ourselves to others - who are here to do different work - is a distraction; learning from them is a gift.