It feels like there’s always a trade-off.
For anybody who makes stuff and puts it out into the world for all to see, the gold at the end of the rainbow is that warm, fuzzy feeling like you did good. We want to take pride in our work. But that’s not all – we want other people to like it, too. To give our efforts a purpose. And we know we’ll never win everyone over, but at least some praise would be nice.
Nothing could be more natural. The problem is when those two desires – to do our work for ourselves and to do our work for others – present themselves as mutually exclusive. This generally leads to a tug-of-war, where we flit reluctantly choose one side or the other, but sort of keep looking over our shoulder, or we try to clumsily straddle the two, and end up doing neither.
Take my writing, for example. Every day for the past 228 days, I have felt incredibly torn. Half of me wants to write something true, something I can stand by, something I feel really proud of. This half of me is quite prepared to offend people who I know are reading, in the name of art. But the other half of me just wants to put something “nice” out there. It doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting somebody, even if that means pulling my punches.
Some days I go further to one side. Some days the other. In general, though, I regret to admit I play it far too safe.
Until recently, I just assumed that this was part and parcel of the challenge – it was either what I wanted, or what I thought “people” wanted. But over time, evidence to the contrary slowly accrued. I realised I was dead wrong. There were indeed two different types of piece, but they were different in a different way than I thought.
Basically, there were pieces where, as I hit the “publish” button, I felt a real rush, a release, a sense of catharsis. And these were almost always the very same pieces that I would receive texts and emails about. People telling me that what I’d written meant a lot to them. Or that it made them think. Or that it made me laugh.
And then there were the other pieces. The ones I didn’t feel too great about, and neither did anybody else, apparently.
So what was the common ingredient? What was it about the ones that both I and other people seemed to like? Were they edgy? Sometimes. Vulgar? Often. Funny? That’s hardly for me to say… But, no. None of those. The common thread I found can be summed up in one simple word:
Quite simply, it was when I was more honest and open about the ways in which I’m flawed, fucked up, otherwise imperfect somehow. Human, you might say. The more vulnerable I seemed to make myself to criticism, the more praise I seemed to get, from readers and from my own mind.
And now that I think about it, I’m hardly surprised.
Each of us walks around utterly terrified of what other people would think of us if they knew “the truth.” And yet… when we finally think “fuck it” and just let go of them, we not only let out a huge sigh of relief from casting off the heavy burden we’ve been carrying around, but other people’s eyes seem to widen to us as well.
Which makes perfect sense. I don’t know about you, but perfection is a real turn-off to me. I like imperfect people. Beauty spots. A poor memory for celebrity’s names. A snort when you laugh.
You won’t get this message from “the world” but the truth is that those things don’t make you a loser. They make you awesome. They make you… “you.” The real losers are the people walking around trying to convince you their shit doesn’t stink.
I’m not suggesting for a second that you start living your life like an open wound. There’s being vulnerable and honest and open, and then there’s fishing for attention. They’re not the same thing. All I’m just suggesting is that you check yourself. How much time and energy are you devoting every day to trying to control how people see you, living in fear of the moment they find out “the truth” about you?
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”Criss Jami