Other People’s Work

Read any good books lately (besides your own)?

Frederick Buechner said, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is exhilarating to discover this place and then get to work in it, pay or no pay, day job or not, published book or engaging tweet.

But without a healthy sense of self, a grown-up level of security in our personhood, we creative-types* can begin to identify ourselves with our work. We become the work we make. And then, instead of celebrating the good work that other people do in our same field or genre, we start to compare our work (ourselves) with theirs, become annoyed and critical, and sometimes just stop listening to, looking at, or reading other people’s work altogether.

Nobody can tell it, write it, sing it, film it, or whatever your thing is – like you can. But you are one voice among hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions, depending on your particular medium – and each of those voices is also unique. Some of those creators are better at using their voices than others, some are still working to find their own voice at all. You are in there too, somewhere on that continuum.

There will always be people who make better work than you do. “Better” is wildly subjective and depends on all sorts of things like budget, public opinion, connections, aesthetic, age, experience . . .

But as I’ve listened to and learned from creators I consider to be “better,” I’ve seen a common thread. These are people who pay attention to other people’s work. Musicians who rave about other musicians, poets who immerse themselves in other people’s poetry, filmmakers who go into great detail describing how other people’s films have inspired them. And they tend to seek out work they consider better than their own.

That takes a healthy sense of self, a realistic perspective on one’s own work and calling. It’s humbling to remember that other people picked up guitars and made up songs before I could tie my shoes – that I was not the one to discover music. Sounds crazy-obvious and astonishingly arrogant when I say it like that, but these are the sorts of unvoiced exaggerations self-delusion sneaks into our minds if we don’t acquaint those minds with the voices and work of other people (I know, because I’ve been there).

And so, I think that one significant mark of maturity in a creative life is when you can be moved, inspired, and challenged by the work of another (especially a peer, someone living and working in your field, even in your particular circle of influence), without feeling threatened, jealous, hyper-critical, or compelled to copy.

I’m not saying that these feelings shouldn’t surface as we interact with other people’s work. In fact, they almost certainly will and should as we mature, but if we recognize them for what they are and continue to create in spite of them, they will prove to be very helpful teachers and teach themselves right out of a job.

So hit the library and grab a book of poems, subscribe to somebody else’s blog, go out and hear another singer/songwriter at your local coffee shop, go to somebody else’s gallery opening. And feel your mind broaden, and say a little word of thanks for all the brilliant voices in the world.

* In this post I’m writing specifically from my perspective as someone who tries to create on a regular basis, but these ideas could probably apply in other fields of work as well, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

6 Comments

  1. love Love LOVE this!!! I don’t know if it’s because you are my daughter or because you’re just so blame great with words – but YOU are one of those who other writers who helps me move toward my best… Thanks for this piece, on a day when I really needed it!

    • It’s because I’m your daughter 🙂 And I mean not just that you are biased, but that I got your genes and your presence in my life. Thank you.

  2. Julia. At the risk of sounding like I want to be one of those you describe who reads other people’s work, let me say that I read and thoroughly enjoyed this post. How often I have found myself irked by jealousy at the success of others only to remember that we are not in competition, but rather on the same team. Thanks for the welcome reminder. Bob Allen

    • Mr. Allen! (You will always be Mr. Allen to me.) Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s ironically encouraging to know that you have experienced the jealousy thing as well – because I have always known you to do good work. Thanks for being a mentor to me in my creative life.

  3. Fantastic post Julia. I like how you connected appreciation for the creative work others to maturity. You suggested these ideas apply to other fields as well. I agree. Example: A mature leader appreciates quality leadership — they know it brings better results for everyone involved. An immature leader suppresses talent. Thanks!

    • Thanks Dave – interesting to hear from a business/leadership perspective on this. You have certainly modeled this maturity in leadership as I’ve known and worked with you.

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