I was thinking really negatively about my art last night when I uploaded that political cartoon. I’ve been basically “talking myself into” pressing on, well, in all things. This negativity is contradictory to my recent inspirational epiphanies about a positive attitude, so I started thinking about the true nature of these things, so I can better understand them, and be better equipped to implement my “positive attitude” philosophy into my life in a practical way.
I’m going to document my findings here, not only for me, but for others who may find them useful. I want to be able to refer to this post in the future in order to strengthen my resolve when the going gets tough, and negative thoughts start taking over.
I believe that the core of the problem is that we are immersed and conditioned to live in a culture of idolatry and I think I’ve figured out how exactly this leads to a path of self-destruction…problems I didn’t even realize I had until I was in my mid 30’s and as recently as a few days ago…
(this is another long one)
“You want to be big and strong, like Popeye don’t you? Eat your spinach!”
“You want to be like Michael Jordan don’t you? Here, do this thing so you’ll be more like him.”
“You want to be like X don’t you? Well, you’d better do Y.”
From the earliest onset of cognition, our culture pushes us to become more like our idols, which carries with it the unfortunate implication that there’s something inherently wrong with the way we already are. Sometimes, even our identity can get tossed out along the way in emulating our idols. There is a three-pronged skewer that exists that can easily decimate one’s self-esteem, feeling of self-worth and self-respect. I believe I have identified them, and the first step in tackling a problem is identifying what that problem actually is:
1. Fictional Idolatry
The first prong of the problem comes in the form of what I call Fictional Idolatry. This means idolizing things that either don’t even exist, things that are exaggerated beyond reality, or the flat out omissions of anything negative. Now, when I speak of idolatry in this context, I’m not using it for its negative connotation. We all have our heroes in some form or fashion, regardless of reason.
What I mean by Fictional Idolatry is this: When a woman is comparing her own looks to a super-model on a cover of a magazine, she is essentially comparing herself to something that doesn’t even exist. It’s one thing to compare yourself to a real person, but it’s an entirely different thing when you’re comparing yourself to something that’s entirely fiction. Everyone knows not to compare themselves to fictional characters, like James Bond for instance, but after we edit out every blemish, bulge, pimple or wart from the photographs and stories of our favorite celebrities, how is the comparison any different?
This is why it is sometimes so shocking (and profitable) to see celebrities’ “before (doctored) and after (candid) shots.” Hollywood constructs a false vision of what these people look like, and then we go bananas when we see shots of these people in their daily lives without that Hollywood prism. They have hair, warts, moles, pimples, bulges, and “bad sides” to the profiles and personalities both, just like everyone else. And should a celebrity ever show that they are anything less than that virtual reality of perfection, they pay for it in spades. (Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Don Imus, Tiger Woods, etc..)
So, the media gives us these impossible standards that the superstars themselves can barely live up to, let alone us.
Standards that largely don’t even exist. When we compare ourselves to these people, we’re comparing ourselves to smoke and mirrors, folks.
2. Frankenstein’s Perfect Collection & Blind Spots
The second prong that skewers us is what happens when we take the first premise and multiply it by every facet we admire in many different people and construct an impossibly ideal person that we constantly measure ourselves against. A little from column A, a little from column B, a little from column C, and presto, you have yourself a custom built Frankenstein in your mind’s eye of all the perfect parts of many different people that no single person one Earth could ever compete with.
I want to be successful like this person. I want to play the bass like that person. I want to draw like this person. I want to be smart like that person. I want to be attractive like this person. I want to be wise like that person. So, essentially, I’m asking myself to be a polymath with prodigy-level skills in…everything? Can the Dalai Lama shred on the bass? Was Nikola Tesla successful? Was Abraham Lincoln attractive? Could Michael Jordan paint the Sistine Chapel?
What’s worse, are the blind spots we apply to our heroes. When we look up to someone, it’s very difficult to face their faults. For a long time there, I idolized Nicola Tesla for his genius. He was brilliant, and one of my unsung heroes. What was difficult to accept was the fact that the man, for all intents and purposes, was nuttier than a jar of goobers. He had all kinds of issues that I wouldn’t want. It’s therefore disingenuous to cherry-pick the things we like, leave the things we don’t, ignoring the whole. We get a lopsided version of reality stuck in our heads that rarely ever matches up to reality.
3. Non-Fiction Idolatry
The final prong comes in the form of idolizing real people who actually do real things that we look up to. For example, people like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, or whoever. Family, friends, teachers, etc, can all fall into this category — not just famous people. People who have actual traits, or real-life skills that we admire. But the problem with this type of adulation, is not only that it’s the most susceptible to Blind Spots, these people have their stations largely due to luck and their own experiences. Because they are them. Not you. You have different environmental circumstances and experiences that define who you are and the people you are most likely to meet.
Perseverance and hard work are only an essential two-thirds of the whole equation…it may be hard to swallow, but dumb, pure, stupid luck is the that final third critical piece. You need all three in spades to become a Michael Jordan, or a Tiger Woods. It makes no sense to beat oneself up and stew over not winning the lottery.
4. The Point (Finally!)
So I’ve taken everything I like from everyone else, ignored all the stuff I don’t like, slapped them all together in an impossibly perfect form, and then get down on myself because I suck and don’t measure up to what I think I should be…is it any wonder depression and anxiety are natural parts of my life? And on top of all this, where, in the middle of it all, is there any room for me to just be…me?
If I’m too busy being like Cliff Burton, or like Tom Richmond, the more people I try and be like the less and less room I make for Michael Wood being like Michael Wood.
My measuring stick needs to be me, and only me — not everyone else who isn’t me. I’m not all those other people, and I can never BE those other people. The only person I can be, realistically, with all hyperbole aside, is a better version of me.
So I think when it comes time to measuring oneself, the metric is you. Don’t let the masters discourage you from doing what you do – it’s hard to imagine, but the masters were, at one point, unskilled. Look to the masters for inspiration, of course, but look at them that’s more of a “they are proof that it can be done…and if they can do it, so can I” instead of a “I’ll never be as good as them, so I shouldn’t even try.”
The difference between doing a thing and not doing a thing, is that one carries with it the chance of both failure and success, while the other carries only the certainty of failure. You cannot succeed if you do not do, and if failure is how we learn, then expect and accept that your successes with be paved with persistent failure.
I would rather risk success than guaranteed failure.