This morning, I caught myself being extremely jealous of a fellow illustrator. I was reading an interview of a Brooklyn-based illustrator in a trade magazine, and instead of being inspired, I was overcome with a sense of failure. She was living in the creative mecca of Brooklyn. She was getting jobs for all the big guys. She shared a studio with some of the most prominent creatives of today. She did amazing work with speed and in abundance. I was isolated in rural Canada. I was not getting the kinds of jobs I wanted as much as I hoped. I worked alone most of the time. I’m slow and never feel satisfied with my work. An all round pity party of one.
I don’t by magazines and read interviews of creatives to foam at the mouth. I read them to be inspired, to learn about how others work, why they do what they do, what they are doing, and what sort of things they struggle with. But no matter who I’m reading about, whether in an interview, a blog feature, or whatever, I end up not simply aspiring to their level of excellence, but coveting the attention they are receiving and idealizing their lives as illustrators. Instead of leaving full, I feel empty. Instead of celebrating their successes and enjoying the gift of beauty they contribute, I starting anxiously wondering how I can have what they have.
While my fiercely competitive tendencies have an upside, most notably being a primary motivator to do good work, they sure get more airtime in my head than they ought. I think it’s good to recognize good work and interesting lives and to be compelled by them to aspire toward a similar level of excellence. But it’s a whole other thing when I start to feel entitled to the same thing others have. As though I deserve more recognition, or as though I’m actually just a few steps behind them. It’s really quite presumptuous when I think about it. Envy is my ego’s way of saying it should have more than its share, it should have more that what others have, it should be number one. This is a terrible way to think and feel. On one level, it’s just a downer. It discourages me by telling me I have failed, or by telling me I will never be that good, that I am just mediocre. On another level, it breeds a toxic mix of ingratitude and sense of entitlement. I forget how amazingly blessed I am to do what I do for a living, and for the skills, abilities, and endowments that have gotten me to where I am today. I’m not the best thing since sliced bread, but I am in a pretty unique and desirable position, and I need to remember this and be extremely thankful.
And that’s really it. I need to be thankful. I have health, a wonderful and supportive family, a rich community of friends, the most beautiful mountains and fields and skies to look at every day, a quiet and generously sized studio, good neighbours, and, where it comes to work, the well hasn’t dried up yet. People come to me and ask me to create things for them that they can’t. Moreover, they want what I have. They want me to make something that only I can make for them, and they’ll even pay me for it. I am thankful.
There is so much more to list in terms of things I am thankful for. People to thank, who helped me along the way. People to thank who encourage me everyday. Every single person who double taps a picture in my Instagram feed. Every liked tweet. Every page view. Yes, those things too. I am thankful for the tools we have today that help affirm us in our creativity. We all can have these little circles of fans, people who routinely keep abreast of our work and cheer us on by their appreciations and comments. I am thankful for this extended sense of community we can enjoy in that way.
It all becomes toxic when we want more. More. The modern world does not teach us to be content. To be thankful. From the youngest age, it taps into that part of us that can never be satisfied and, along with it, tells us we should have more, have better, be more, be better. Perhaps more and better are good things, but only more and better of the right things. What other people have are right for them. What I have is right for me. I need to start recognizing that I have what I need, and the more I appreciate it, the more I’ll use it, and the more it will return to me in multiples.
Back in the day, there was that U2 song, Beautiful Day. I know it’s so corny to quote a U2 song ever (what am I, a youth pastor?), but that line in the refrain, “What you don’t have, you don’t need it now”, really struck me. What I loved about that song was its sense of gratitude and exuberant celebration of the present. But that line really summed up the way we ought to feel to appreciate the beautiful day, the gifts we have at hand. We have what we need right now, I have what I need, today. So what am I going to do with it? I can start with gratitude, and the rest will follow.