Life Without Envy
Ego Management for Creative People
By Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Camille DeAngelis
All rights reserved.
Let's make sure our ideas of success are our own, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.
— ALAIN DE BOTTON
PERSONAL AGENCY? YOU'D LIKE TO THINK SO!
Misapprehension #1:My thoughts are entirely my own. The way I think about the world, and my place in it, is completely unique to me.
CAPITALISTS DESIGNED THE AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM TO TURN CHILDREN INTO OBEDIENT WORKERS.
I know this sounds like the musings of a conspiracy theorist, but let's examine the facts: in 1843 US Congressman Horace Mann traveled to Prussia, where this civic-minded educational system was already in place, and when he got back to America he lobbied to emulate it. Educational historians laud Horace Mann as the champion of free public schooling to help children grow into educated voters, but there is a dark side to this system: his efforts opened classrooms to those kids besides boys from wealthy families, but in doing so Mann advocated for an orderly society at the expense of the individual. His educational vision implied that the "common" child — one not born into privilege — should learn to follow rules and directions rather than inventing his own, and for that Mann is remembered as the "Father of the Common School." It is not much of a generalization to say that in a traditional school environment, conformity is valued over innovation. Sir Ken Robinson makes this argument in his 2006 TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?," and it's the most-watched TED video of all time because we know how right he is.
When you actually stop to consider it — which probably isn't often — you can see how we are brought up to be good little workers, good little consumers. How many of your childhood desires — for toys, pets, junk food, Halloween costumes — were influenced by advertisements and commercials? Did you ever ask a parent or teacher why something was done in a particular way, only to be shut down with a variation of "because I said so"? How many times did the hunger for approval win out over curiosity and imagination?
You might begin to suspect that even your most cherished and private ambitions are double agents in the service of that destiny. It makes sense, right? We are made to feel that we must always be striving for more. A bigger house, more money, more success, because if you feel complete just as you are, then you're no longer a cog in the system. You are insuggestible and therefore unprofitable. Corporations need you to feel inadequate. They need you to want all the things. They're selling you an idea of individuality that they've created, and selling you the products that will keep you believing in this illusion. It's in their interest to let you think you have personal agency, that you're making all your own decisions. There's a reason why The Matrix was such a successful movie.
Train yourself to think more critically about what you truly believe and want, what actually makes you happy. What are your favorite foods? Your favorite films and music? What did you want to be when you grew up and why, and how did you come to do what you're doing now? What appeals to you and what disgusts you, and why? If you keep looking you'll begin to see your biases and your assumptions, and how you came to hold them in the first place.
If you think that as a creative individual you are above all this shallow materialism and mindless conformity, that it doesn't apply to you, think again. Artists have their own carnival of bullshit to contend with, and it might be even more insidious. We've convinced ourselves we're striving not for our own glory but for the benefit of art, of literature, of culture, but we still "need" the MacBook Pro to write our screenplay. We "need" the diploma from a "prestigious" school if we wish to be taken seriously in our chosen field. We "need" the top-of-the-line art supplies and music equipment and lessons with the most respected teacher in our echelon. I'm not saying we can't legitimately benefit from these resources — just that we shouldn't identify with the trappings.
If you want to slough off this culturally imposed bullshit, you have to go and sit in a very quiet place where no one can possibly interrupt you. Ask yourself, "How much of this is actually mine?"
Do you even want what you think you want?
Don't let anyone tell you, ever, that this is a zero-sum game. Your genius does not threaten me. It delights and inspires me.
— SEANAN McGUIRE
SWEET LITTLE BLOBS OF TEMPORARY PERSONHOOD
Misapprehension #2:We are isolated and competitive individuals, forever jostling with strangers for a seat on the bus at the end of a long day.
In fourth grade I got to duck out of some of the regular subjects each week to attend "Challenge" classes. Only two students in the whole grade could say they were in "Challenge Everything" — literature, math, art, and music — and I was one of them. You can tell by the way I'm recounting this that I was a bit too proud of it. A classmate, who would become one of the stars on the high school basketball team, once told me (half wistfully, half resentfully) that if there were only a "Challenge Gym," well then, he'd be in it. Looking back on it now, I understand why that kid didn't like me.
As children we are told that no two snowflakes are precisely alike, that each of us is "special" and "unique," but even when we are small we can sniff the poop under the platitude. We may be too young yet to articulate this, but we understand on an instinctive level that if everyone is special — if every watercolor in the middle school art show gets a ribbon — then there's no real value to the word. So, through the preferential treatment of our parents and teachers, we come to believe that some of us are more special than others: more talented, more fortunate, and therefore more deserving of success later on in life.
Did I just say "more deserving"? Shouldn't I have said "better equipped"?
The competitive spirit of American capitalism gave us the Prius and the iPhone, but it also fosters a sense of insecurity from which none of us are immune. Only some of us can win approval; only a few of us will become rich and famous. In our classrooms and on the nightly news (along with what's deemed not "important" enough to make the news) we are implicitly taught, as Noam Chomsky says, that some of us matter and some of us don't.
And yet we all know, despite this conditioning, that my life is no more valuable than that of a thirty-four-year-old woman living in abject poverty on the far side of the world. So we have to throw out these bullshit conceptions of uniqueness and chosenness if we want to talk about the nature of my identity in relation to yours.
Let's reflect for a moment on the parameters of your identity, shall we?
Your socioeconomic background.
Your abilities and disabilities.
You didn't choose any of this, though, did you?
The Illusion of Separation
The "oneness" concept appears time and again across the spectrum of religious and philosophical traditions, though we may put different language around it. This principle is most prominent in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but we catch the occasional glimpse of it within the Abrahamic belief systems as well. It's the unity of all created things, the notion that "God" — or however you'd prefer to name the intelligence that created us — separated itself into seemingly discrete parts so that it might come to know itself, and that this separation, your ego, is entirely illusory. The Hindu tradition has a beautiful word, maya, for the power used by gods and demons alike to produce these illusions, and another, lila, which means "divine play." If the gods are making us dance simply to amuse themselves, well then, we might as well relax and enjoy the party.
It brings me a continual sense of peace to think of myself as a sweet little blob of temporary personhood. What if we all really do come out of a cosmic Play-Doh container? What if we're all made of the same stuff molded into different shapes?
So you see, you're not special. And that is the one great and profound benediction underwriting your entire existence.
This may seem like New Age nonsense at first, but hear me out. I believe you can fairly judge every philosophy by its effect once you've spent a bit of time testing it. Does this help my life work better? Yes or no, the answer is generally pretty clear. Consider these lines from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
He was afraid; therefore one who is all alone is afraid. He reflected,
"Since there is nothing other than me, of what am I afraid?" Then his fear vanished, for of what could he have been afraid?
If we're all created out of a single source, then you come from the same place as everything you're afraid of. The Hindu philosophers are telling us that, spiritually speaking, there is no monster lurking under the bed. Yes, there are stock market crashes and lethal diseases and occasionally pieces of exploded airplane fall out of the sky. And it's true that there are people in the world who would do you physical harm given half an opportunity. But there are also people in this world who make peace with their terminal diseases and forgive their attackers, because they are able to recognize that there is so much more to this than this.
We have to allow for what the psychologist Eric Maisel calls "necessary arrogance" — no art ever comes into being without the artist's belief that she has a worthwhile contribution to make — but don't let your ego talk you into taking that contribution too seriously. When you subscribe to the theory of oneness, you feel buoyed by other people's good fortune and success instead of threatened or diminished by it. It's much easier to feel happy when good things happen to good people, and much more natural to empathize when horrible things happen to good people.
Best of all, when good things happen to you, you get to share your joy instead of hoarding it — which is, of course, a self-enhancing cycle: your attitude and emotions giving you ever more reason to feel what you're already feeling.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— ARTHUR C. CLARKE
Misapprehension #3:I know myself. I know what I am capable of. I know my limits.
When I go to Edinburgh I like to haunt the mezzanine of the main reading room at the National Library of Scotland. On my first trip a few years ago I indulged a fascination with Borderland, a quarterly journal of psychical research published between 1893 and 1897 by W. T. Stead, who later died on the Titanic. Much of the material in this short-lived magazine is sensationalist if not downright hokey, but I still found quite a few articles worth the ink they were printed with. The most remarkable concerned the autopsy of a blind man. The doctor found gray matter — brain cells! — inside the cadaver's fingertips. The blind man quite literally thought with his fingers.
It's often said that any phenomenon with a whiff of magic about it is something we will be able to study empirically in the future. Science simply hasn't caught up yet. This seems like the only sensible way to regard all that we don't yet understand: to admit that we don't understand it.
The blind man's autopsy — along with plenty of other weird phenomena studied by the more flexibly minded among the scientific community — hint that consciousness is not housed inside the brain, that it is not localized at all. (Take for another example the neurons in our navel region, providing for that oh-so-reliable "gut feeling.") Max Planck, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918 and the father of quantum theory, would not have pooh-poohed the work of psychical researchers. "I regard consciousness as fundamental," he declared in 1931. "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness." It isn't brain matter that enables consciousness, Planck is saying — it's the other way around.
Scientists can't measure the percentage of our neurological activity occurring on the conscious level — UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga believes it's roughly 2 percent — but this means we can say that something like 98 percent of our mental processes are happening subliminally. In other words: you are a mystery to yourself. You have no idea what you are capable of.
It's a terrifying thought, but kind of sexy too, right? You aren't even aware of your own secrets.
You can actually use the fact that you don't know most of what's going on in your own mind to your creative advantage. This book is the perfect example: in 2011 and 2012 I kept a notebook with copious scribblings on anything that tickled my interest: the shared dreams of the Sufi mystics; the very best lines from Doctor Who or The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell's interviews with Bill Moyers. It felt important that I should read and make notes on anything I felt drawn to, anything at all, even though I didn't have any idea what I was working toward. I'd purchased the notebook at a stationery shop in Florence in 2002; the cover is made from heavy paper with images from a medieval tarot, and it has graph-paper pages. This Florentine notebook has a ritual air about it, so much so that it took me ten years to get to the last page. I saved it for the good stuff.
When I pulled this notebook off the shelf recently I was stunned to see how thoroughly I'd laid the foundations for Life Without Envy. It was like drawing a map of an imaginary place and then traveling to find it, exactly as I'd designed it, there and navigable in real life. A piece of me, another tendril of my consciousness, was already here.
So you make space in the parlor that is your conscious mind, knowing that it is only one room in the house where your soul lives. You put the kettle on, waiting for the knock at the front door but not at all surprised to hear the footfalls on the stair. You follow your curiosity wherever it leads you, even into the darkest, filthiest crawl spaces. You remember that you don't know, that you don't have a clue, and when the magic announces itself you'll know just what to call it.
There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer.
— RAINER MARIA RILKE
HURRY UP AND BE SOMEBODY
Misapprehension #4:I just need to prove myself as soon as possible, and then I'll be someone important.
During my freshman year at NYU I took the subway uptown to the Guggenheim. When I came upon Picasso's Le Moulin de la Galette — painted just after the renowned artist's nineteenth birthday — I stood before it in a fog of self-reproach. I was nineteen, and what did I have to show for myself?
In that moment I succumbed to "wunderkind syndrome": the frantic desire to produce an amazing work of art as soon as possible so that everyone will hail your genius before any of your contemporaries can edge you out. Furthermore, if you're not applying yourself to this ambition with all-consuming focus then you obviously don't want it badly enough, and if you don't want it enough to give up sleep, social life, and basic personal hygiene, then you musn't be a true artist.
Ridiculous, right? Why do we want so badly to prove our brilliance at a more tender age than everyone else? Why, in our secret (or not-so-secret) hearts, do we want to be perceived as better than everyone else?
Perhaps the first reason is, of course, that our culture is obsessed with youth, and generally at the expense of substance. We feel this panic to produce something while the world still casts us in an attractive light. This pressure is especially acute for those of us working in the performing arts; one of my roommates at NYU, a dancer, would receive her degree in three years instead of four to put her on the full-time hamster wheel of auditions and callbacks as soon as possible.
The second factor to consider is the scarcity mentality, which has haunted our species from that African savannah all the way to the Walmart Black Friday stampede. There are only so many accolades to go around — only so much gallery space, only so many roles in the show, only so many slots on the "big five" publishers' seasonal lists — and we grow desperate to claim our share as soon as we can. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Life Without Envy by Camille DeAngelis. Copyright © 2016 Camille DeAngelis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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