There’s something about competition that invigorates all of us. The thrill of the struggle, the primal satisfaction of outperforming an opponent, the euphoria of victory. We all love it, in one way or another. Hell, look at the popularity of sports. Every professional sports league in America is worth billions of dollars and attracts millions of devout fans every single year, many of whom are perfectly willing to inflict violence on other human beings simply for their allegiance to a particular team. They are all there in celebration of competition.
As artists, our methods of competition are a little subtler, a little quieter. Job boards, networking, social functions, and auditions are all forms of competition to us. We all work to be the best, the greatest, the most qualified, the most deserving. It’s the endgame of our training, after all: to be the best we can be. We work tirelessly to improve, and develop, and expand our skills, and get the work we want. Blood, sweat, toil, and tears, as the saying goes.
And then someone else gets it. The big role, the great gig, the scholarship, the attention, the glory, the opportunity, the big break. I’m sure you’re all with me when I state the obvious: it sucks.
It seems like everywhere we turn, some lucky jerk is getting the opportunities we feel we deserve. It is one of the most frustrating feelings in the world. Guess what: that will happen a lot. That is not to say that you are less talented, less dedicated, less deserving, or anything like that. Quite often, it is about things beyond your control. Someone else knew the right person, someone else had the right look, someone else happened to have something in common with the person in charge. Sometimes, it is for nastier reasons, like bias or pettiness. Sometimes, it’s not for any reason for complex than plain-and-simple luck. It happens. It sucks. There’s lots of things you can do about it: cry, scream, pull your hair out, eat something fattening, get wasted, vent to your bestie, and many others. However, there’s only one course of action that will, ultimately, provide a productive solution. Get yourself back in control, dust yourself off, and try again. It’s one of the oldest clichés in the world, but every cliché has a note of truth in it. Leave the other person with their win, and try again.
I think it’s time to address personal competition. The artistic world is very small (once you get out in it, you’ll be amazed by who knows who), and odds are good you’ll run into some people repeatedly. Odds are also good that the person who, in your eyes, ‘gets all the breaks’ is someone you know and will have to contend with over and over again. Congratulations, you have a rival.
Culturally, we love the idea of the rival. The equally matched opponent, the ‘evil twin’, the spoiled rich kids from across town. The archetype is everywhere and from ancient mythology to comic books to rap feuds, we are enamored with the idea of having a rival.
Interestingly, I have found that rivalry can be one-way. Back in my college days,
I had a rival. Because I like to consider myself somewhat mature (and because it was a VERY small program), I will not name names. Most people who know me from those days can probably take a good guess, but ultimately, their identity isn’t important to the point I’m making. I spent a frankly ridiculous amount of time trash-talking them behind closed doors, venting my frustrations at anyone who would listen, and working tirelessly to prove that I was just as good as they were, damn it. They were, by all appearances, the favored child, the shining example, the pinnacle. I can’t be certain how much of that was my own perception and how much was reality, but again, that is less important than what that perception meant. If this person was truly the favorite who could do no wrong, that would absolve me of any responsibility to improve myself or continue working. After all, if they were predetermined to win, what good were my own efforts?
See what a toxic and unhelpful mindset that is? While we are culturally fascinated with the idea of rivals, we rarely think about whether or not this fascination is productive. Fostering a sense of healthy competition is all well and good, but rivalries (even those of the one-way variety) can easily turn into obsessions. We can become so focused on the comparison to the other that we neglect ourselves. We can become so focused on beating them that we forget to care for ourselves.
Returning to the example, I grew so focused and obsessively jealous of my rival that it quietly poisoned my own creativity. Whenever I heard of positive developments in their life or praise for their achievements, I would immediately respond with venom. First outwardly (“oh look, more praise for the oh-so-perfect one”) and then inwardly (“why am I not good enough for good things?”). I saw their work and cried, not from the potency of their art, but from fury and jealously at the thunderous applause they received. I had genuinely become so obsessed with and jealous of this other person that the very idea of another artist succeeding had brought me to tears. It is also worth mentioning that while this obsession was at its most intense, I did very little original creative work of my own. I’m going to say that again, because it’s important.
If you spend all your time obsessing about what other people are doing, there’s no time left for your own work.
After college, this person and I have since gone our separate ways, and I doubt that either of us is suffering creatively as a result. Granted, it’s a lot easier not to think about someone if they’re several thousand miles away, rather than in your classes every day, but my point stands.
It’s easy to think that certain people get all the breaks when all you see are the results. Most kinds of hard work are invisible, and the only person who really knows how much effort went into something is the person doing the work. Are they just lucky? Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes, you’re lucky. Luck just happens. That’s kind of the whole idea. The rest requires some effort. Nobody sees all of your effort but you, and you can’t see all of the effort that anyone else puts into what they do.
Even if it’s not an obsessive rivalry like my ill-advised one in college, comparing yourself to others can very easily lead down unhealthy and unhelpful paths. Any artist can look around and see someone with a better job, a larger network, a larger body of work, better reviews, more privilege, a deeper bag of tricks. Actually, do that. Think about all of the artists you know personally. Most of the people you can think of probably fit at least one of those criteria, and you probably fit at least one to some of them. Think of all the artists you admire. Do they fit the criteria? They probably do. Guess what? The only things that separate the artists you admire from the artists around you are luck, hard work, and one more thing you can control: your perception.
Feel free to look around at the artists around you. Watch them closely and pay attention. Learn from them, applaud them, support them, but under no circumstances should you believe that you are any less of an artist because you are not who they are. You are the artist that you are, and they are who they are. You can never be who they are. On the flip side, THEY CAN NEVER BE YOU EITHER. So, if that’s the case, why not be as awesome as possible? Push yourself to be better, and push them to be better.
The industry is competitive, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for all of us.