So, you wanna hear about a negative message that used to rattle around in my head, making me feel anxious and unsuccessful?
"Toni Morrison published The Bluest Eye when she was thirty-nine."
I know, right? What could possibly be "negative" about that fact and why would I take it personally?
For me, Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a masterpiece of modern literary fiction. The fact that her career as a published novelist began "relatively later in life" was a huge comfort to me throughout my twenties and thirties.
In the late 1980's/ early 90's, when I was an undergrad studying Creative Writing and dreaming of my future career as a writer, novelists like Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt were making huge names for themselves in their early twenties.
I compared my goals to their achievements and felt like I was...behind. My life wasn't happening fast enough somehow. The milestones were still off in the distance -- a blur to those riding the high speed rail, while I trudged along on foot like some sad little hobo.
"Toni Morrison published The Bluest Eye when she was thirty-nine" evolved into a kind of mantra for me because of its subtext -- that an amazing writer with a brilliant career (the greatest living novelist working in the English language, in my opinion) -- did not begin to publish until she was almost forty years old.
I held onto that as a template for my own aspirations. Until thirty-nine came and went a few years ago. And by the time I really stopped to take notice, I realized that I had already begun the writing for which I am publicly known. What do you know? My writing career didn't look a damned thing like the work of these other people.
...I launched Shift Your Spirits when I was thirty-seven.
My writing and publishing career didn't resemble anything that any of us could have imagined until relatively recently, around the time that professional bloggers emerged. All those decades I kept such elaborate diaries, I identified quite a bit with Virginia Woolf, but thought "who makes a living off their personal journals while still alive?"
My compass of comparison was so off, it's absolutely amusing...
What's the point? It all turned out to be a comparison of apples and oranges. I had taken my heroes and my sources of inspiration and turned them into a scourge. The advice you hear to find others who are doing what you want to do and model yourself after them had somehow become distorted into a means of self-flagellation.
The template became a basis for cruel self-judgment.
It's madness -- how was that even "accurate" enough to warrant its powerful impact on my self-esteem?
What is the Thing over which you compare yourself to others?
It could be anything, really. Where and when do you find yourself looking over fences at another person's remarkably green blades and thinking
- "I want his job."
- "I want a body like hers."
- "Why don't I have someone special in my life like they do?"
- "Why hasn't my business taken off like theirs has?"
The things that are well within your reach, the things you know are within your power to affect, are the ones you probably beat yourself up about the most. It's one thing to have a fleeting moment of pure fantasy, a sigh over something obviously beyond the possible, like the roulette of genetics....
It's when you recognize your aspirations that you are reminded of just how close you are....
Is comparing yourself to other people just smothering the creative life force right out of you?
As if it's not bad enough that you Should all over yourself and listen to the Constant Nag Channel where all sentences start with variations on
"You need to...."
You've got a constant comparison program running, like a bad software virus -- a malware that undermines self-esteem -- you're searching and filtering what you need to be doing and what you should be doing based on the accomplishments and experiences of other people.
This is crippling self-abuse.
It's not accurate. It doesn't honor your individuality.
It's also ignorant of the hardships suffered by others; what they may have overcome in order to get where they are is often entirely invisible. It assumes that others "had it easy," that they're "lucky," that they haven't worked -- it's an insult to their journey.
It's also naive to want to trade places with anyone.
That which is intended for you will come to you; that which belongs to another will similarly find its home. I don't believe you'll miss what the Universe has planned for you. You can certainly fail to give form to that inspiration when it gets delivered. You can fail to act, as you know you must.
But it's really Your Work and no one else's, isn't it?
The world doesn't need a half-ass Oprah clone -- Oprah's got it covered.
No one in the entire Universe has the potential to pull off Doing You quite like the original.
Once you know what your own success looks and feels like, it becomes much easier to reset the metric you operate by. Your own most recent accomplishment becomes the template by which you crank out another, and another....
Who knows, maybe you're reading this right now and comparing your own goals to my humble accomplishments. (Stay tuned, by the way, I'm not even close to done trying to impress either one of us.)
I promise you, a couple of things I absolutely know to be true -- if I can do Me, you can certainly do You.
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