On Comparison

08/20/13

lisacongdon_maryoliver2

{My latest sketchbook entry}

There is a quote credited to Theodore Roosevelt floating around the Internet lately that says, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I have worked hard since I first started posting pictures of my artwork on the Internet eight years ago to put my head down, focus on my own work, and not compare myself to others. For the most part, I’ve been pretty successful at it. My mantra has always been “Live your own life,” which essentially means: make your own work  & carve your own path. As a forty-something self-taught female artist in a field dominated by young people with prestigious BFA degrees in fine art,  illustration and design, I have had no choice in order to make it. In fact, when I do write and speak about my journey, I credit my ability not to compare myself to others as something that’s helped my career tremendously.

As some of you know, this past weekend I spoke at Weapons of Mass Creation Fest in Cleveland, Ohio. It was an amazing event: chock full of fantastic creatives, inspiring speakers, and warm, wonderful people. I had a fantastic time. I was, in a word, joyful. That is, until Sunday evening.

Over the weekend, speaker after speaker gave incredible, inspiring talks about their lives and work. Some speakers were hilariously funny and brought the house down with laughter. Others told personal stories about their journeys that made members of the audience (including me) cry. One speaker on Sunday got a standing ovation. Others showed incredible projects with prestigious client after prestigious client.

Then it was 6:15 and time to give my talk. As the host was announcing my ascent onto the stage, half the room emptied out (admittedly not surprising at 6:15 on a Sunday) and I jokingly quipped,  “Come back! I promise not to be boring!” Then, in the dark, I gave my talk to a half full room. My topic was a recent illustration project that had been quite challenging. I’d worked hard on this talk and labored over the order of my slideshow and talking points. And then, as if in an instant (time goes by fast in public speaking) my talk was over. I even had to rush at the end to finish. The half-full audience clapped, I exited the stage, said goodbye to as many new friends as I could, and left with Clay and her aunt, who picked us up so we could spend the night at her house in a Cleveland suburb.

“That went okay,” I said to myself in the car as we pulled away. In truth, I was completely deflated.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. “I’m boring,” I told myself. “My work is boring.” And “I’m a boring public speaker.” And “The topic of my talk was boring. ” Then there was, “I’m old.” (I was definitely one of the oldest, if not the oldest speakers and participants). I replayed the excitement earlier in the day over what other speakers had to offer the audience and then compared it to my droll subject matter and delivery. “I’m never doing this again,” I thought. I felt like crawling in a hole.

It’s often true that when I feel vulnerable or not-good-enough, I want to hide or become invisible. I also realize that when I do feel shame, it’s usually caused by my need to be perfect or important or even “the best” at something. If I don’t feel good enough or important enough (or in the case of public speaking, funny enough or inspiring enough), I sometimes experience self-deprecating remorse.

As I mentioned earlier, I have worked hard to value and honor my own experience, and to stay humble. But Sunday I felt terrible. Comparison had stolen my joy.

What’s ironic is that over the very same weekend,  while I was at Weapons of Mass Creation, I was drawing the piece above in my sketchbook. It includes a favorite line from Mary Oliver’s To Begin With, the Sweet Grass  that says, “Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.” I’m not sure I’m right, but to me this means it’s dangerous to always put so much focus on yourself and your own importance. Sure, it’s good to love yourself, but what’s more important is the connection you have and love you share with other people.

By the time I got home last night, all my fretting seemed so silly. I was back in Oakland, far away from the event and had gained some perspective. What matters is not whether I make people laugh or cry when I talk about what I do for a living. What matters is that I have a joyful life filled with good work and good people.

Maybe that’s the topic for my next public talk.

Have a good Tuesday.

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