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.


In case you missed it, there is some great discussion going on around the last post, which was mainly a link to this article. The main topic of interest to myself and the commenters was this seeming paradox between our society’s push towards telling everyone they are “special,” while simultaneously minimizing competition and downplaying both strengths and weaknesses of individual people so that no one feels badly.

Last night our four-year-old son Silas went to “sports camp” at the park where they had a little track meet for the campers. Silas came home with a [plastic] gold medal around his neck that said “Winner,” and I was immediately suspicious. Did everyone get a gold medal? My husband Nathan said that Silas won the long jump. I still wasn’t sure that meant anything in particular. Maybe all the kids “won” the long jump simply because they jumped. But upon further inquiry, I learned that Silas indeed was the first-place long jumper. He also showed me a purple “participant” ribbon that he (and all the other kids) won for participating, and a third-place ribbon for another event in which he actually won third place. I was relieved that our local parks and recreation department is not afraid of competition like the coach who was interviewed in the article. (And of course I was also proud of my little guy!)

About an hour later our seven-year-old daughter Luthien came home and saw Silas’s gold medal around his neck. Her first response was an indignant, “What? Where did he get that? That’s not fair! I didn’t get one!”

I explained that Silas had won the medal in his track event. “But that makes me feel bad, Mom, because I didn’t get a medal!” she insisted. And again today, she came across Silas’s ribbons and was freshly outraged at the thought that he won awards which she did not.

Hopefully she will work through this and grow into adulthood with an ability to both celebrate the beauty and excellence and forgive the failings of herself and everyone else.

I do believe that everyone is special. Or perhaps unique, as Jodi noted in her comments on the last post. For some reason, we often equate the word “special” with the idea of being more important. But really the word means very much the same as “unique,” and it shares a root with “species.” Each of us is, in a way, a singular species. No one of us is more important than any other, or self-sufficient, but each of us does have strengths and weaknesses which can be celebrated and forgiven, respectively. Celebrated and forgiven. Not minimized, qualified, smoothed out and laden with disclaimers.


Helicopter Parents and Trophy Kids

I heard Lori Gottlieb interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio this morning. Here is the article about which she was interviewed. This idea of not fixing everything for our kids seemed especially timely in light of my last post.

I’m interested too in thinking about our culture’s disdain of the ordinary (as noted in the article, no one wants to be “average”). And yet, there is a sort of pushback in our mainstream culture, against a drive for excellence. It’s sort of a paradox; we tell our children they are special, we say everyone is special, but if everyone is special, then really no one is special! Then if someone aspires to excel in a certain area, we call them arrogant or competitive. And, as Gottlieb notes, if someone is weak in a certain area, we try to discover what is wrong, what external circumstances are standing in their way; and we communicate that no one should be especially weak or especially strong in any distinct area of life.

What do you think – about this or any other issue raised in the article? I’m looking for a stimulating conversation here, folks!