Good, Better, Best – The comparison trap

Use what talent you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.  ~~ Henry Van Dyke, poet

Think about it for a moment: do birds care who among them sings the best?  Birds sing for a variety of reasons: to find a mate, to warn of danger, or to tell where the best berries are (or the best-stocked feeder).  Judging by the goldfinch who sang his entire repertoire the other morning as I stood listening just a few feet away, they also sing for the sheer pleasure of it (I suppose he could have been flirting with me, but it would never have worked out).  I doubt Mr. Goldfinch was concerned that he was the best singer.  He simply sang.

Kids are like that, too.  If they feel like singing, they sing; if they feel like drawing, they draw; if they feel like dancing, they dance.  (The alternate is also true – if kids don’t feel like doing something, good luck getting them to do it.)  But somewhere along the way to becoming responsible, socialized adults, our spontaneity gets lost.  We start looking over our shoulders at what everyone else is doing.  We start judging ourselves, comparing ourselves and our efforts.  We begin to forget that we can do things for the joy of doing them.

I recently took a Shakespeare acting class.  It was geared for adults, but there was also a ten-year-old girl in the class.  At first, I thought: Great, another child actor.  But she was great.  Not only did she act circles around us adults, she genuinely enjoyed the process.  She wasn’t concerned with being the best; she was there to learn and have fun.  She never took offense at a correction: she simply tried again.  Her joy in the work was infectious.  She reminded me why we call it a “play.”

It’s when we start comparing ourselves to others – comparing our talent, our output, our success – that we get into trouble.  But it’s hard to avoid the comparison trap: we learn by watching others, and our first attempts at art-making are often out-and-out copies of work we admire.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also sets us up to be measured by the wrong yardstick – one that’s too big, too soon.  Originality comes much later, if at all.  No art form is immune.  Whatever your creative milieu, someone will always be better than you, so you might as well get used to it.  The best you can do is be good at the things you’re good at, and work on the rest.

Teaching voice showed me how unfairly talent can be distributed: one student might have a fabulous voice, but a tin ear; another might have a fantastic ear, but no sense of rhythm; and someone else might have a great sense of rhythm and an excellent ear, but no voice.  For any one singer to have the entire package is rare.  I did my best to help everyone capitalize on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.  I also tried very hard to keep them from comparing their singing to that of the other students.  But it was a challenge, especially when auditions and competitions rolled around.  I can’t tell you the number of times a student said to me, “I can’t sing such-and-such song or aria because so-and-so sang it.”  As if thousands hadn’t been singing that song or aria for centuries.  This is comparison taken to an absurd level, but it exists, and it’s the devil to convince people otherwise.

But competition also has its uses: it raises our game, gives us goals, focuses our intent.  I sought out opportunities for my students to compete, but I also tried to keep them from judging themselves, because once they started down that road, a nasty case of performance anxiety often followed.  I wanted to keep them focused on the work, encouraging them to be inspired, not intimidated, by the other singers’ progress.  Easier said than done, I’ll admit, especially when they found themselves in a roomful of competitors.  Even Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized the problem:

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Emerson understood that engaging in constant comparison can stifle our innate talents and unique qualities, and prune back any budding skills we might have before they have a chance to bloom.  As a young performer, I fell into the comparison trap over and over; it was years before I was able to recognize the strengths I bring to the artistic table.  It would have served me better in those early years to focus on my native abilities, instead of beating myself up over my perceived inadequacies.

Yet we can’t deny that we live in a competitive society.  Our lives are saturated with competition.  Even if we don’t participate in sports, just flick on the TV, and there will inevitably be some kind of pitched battle going on.  Don’t care for sports?  Maybe you obsess over American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance? or Chopped.  If you can’t – or don’t want to – wean yourself off the competition shows, at least remind yourself that the contestants are doing their best.  Everyone has an off day; no one sets out to be bad.

The best advice I received when I started adjudicating vocal competitions was to give the competitors credit for trying, no matter how they performed.  Of course we each had our personal criteria about what constitutes good singing, or we wouldn’t have been selected as judges.  But it was good to be reminded that we also had no idea where these students had started or how far they’d come.  It’s something I try to keep in mind when I find myself getting overly picky about someone’s performance.  Because ultimately, the more harshly you judge others, the more harshly the voices in your head will judge you.  If you cut people a little slack, your inner judges will do the same for you.  Even in the 19th century, long before America’s Next Top Model, Mr. Emerson understood this:

A man cannot speak but he judges himself…Every opinion reacts on him who utters it.

Of course, perfectionism plays a role, too.  Going back to the start of this post, I doubt if birds care whether their singing is perfect (I suppose a potential mate might care, but that’s not our focus here).  I have a hard time imagining a coyote thinking some other coyote’s howl is more perfect, or that a trumpeting bull elephant is judging his performance against some elephantine standard of perfection.  When put in those terms, the ridiculousness of the comparison trap becomes clear.

In the end, we’re all just muddling through.  Some just muddle through a little more gracefully than the rest of us.