I am reading the beautiful book On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity by Ellen J. Langer. She writes about her psychological journey in painting. A Harvard Psychologist she understands the tricksterish nature of creativity. She writes poignantly about comparison and making mistakes. These, she says, are the two main obstacles to creativity. Once you understand the fallacy of comparisons and so-called mistakes, you will be free to make what she calls “a personal renaissance”. I’m especially moved by her subtle understanding of comparisons.
When we compare ourselves to others we usually do it either to see ourselves favorably or as an act of self-preservation. If we see a bad drawing, and we are just learning to draw, we might conclude we are good at drawing. And therefore feel good about ourselves. If we see a good drawing, though, we might compare ourselves less favorably, and consider ourselves a bad artist. If we are in a self-preservation mode we might put the other artist down in an effort to feel OK about our own attempts. The problem with these comparisons is that they do not take into account the context in which the drawings were made. We cannot know what sacrifices were made to make the work. We cannot know what classes, lessons, or teachers the artist may have had to get to where he/she is. In short, we do not see the drawing as something made by a person. We see it instead as simply a product. If we could put the maker back in the picture, and saw his/her work as a collection of choices, we would be able to learn from their work, and therefore improve our own. The problem is that in making comparisons we often become paralyzed. She writes
“We tend to presume that there is a best choice and become paralyzed because we do not know what it is. If we make the wrong choice, we will seem stupid.”
In my next post I will write about Langer’s equally moving idea of mistakes. In the mean time, I’d love to know: What comparisons do you make that keep you from living your authentic creative life?