Creating in spite of ourselves - and everyone else
You know that pang of embarrassment and tiny heartbreak you feel when you show someone something you’re really excited about and you get a response of pure (and sometimes malicious?!) indifference? Yeah, that feeling SUCKS.
It’s on my mind because a few weeks ago I shared a poem I’d been working on for a long time. Poured my soul into it while also taking the “craft” part of the work seriously and going through painstakingly precise revisions to bring it up to snuff from a technical perspective. But when it was done, I chose to share it in front of an audience. And while most of the people in that audience I didn’t know, there was one person in that crowd whom I knew personally, and whom I knew is a tough critic. Someone whose tastes are diametrically opposed to mine, but whose own writing I respect. And to be honest, this person was on my mind more than a little bit when I was writing this poem; I wondered how they’d respond to it.
And when I got offstage, feeling pretty good about my performance, I made a beeline for that person and asked them what they thought.
The response I got was relayed in three words:
“It was… cool!”
I was crushed. This was clearly one of those, “I have nothing specifically good to say about what you just shared, so I’m going to say something ambiguously broad instead of telling you that it sucked” kinds of responses.
That night I sat back at my desk, scanning the poem like a first responder standing above the body of a patient they were unable to save. What did I do wrong? I thought. I had no idea, but I knew I was going to deconstruct the poem word by word to try to get to something deserving of a different reaction from this person whom I’d clearly failed to impress.
After a couple of hours of tinkering, I received a message from a stranger. I opened it and learned that it was from a member of the audience from that day’s performance. They said the most touching things about the piece: that it had moved them to tears, urged them to open the dustiest drawers of their relationships, habits and aspirations – drawers that they’d been neglecting for years.
While I was touched by the feedback and grateful to learn that my work had resonated with this person, after taking a few moments to absorb their praise, I returned to my poem and to my original ambition of rewriting it in such a way that the critic whom I was trying to impress would have that reaction.
By now, you can probably detect the contradictory nature of this reaction. But it took me another hour or so of performing plastic surgery on this poem I’d crafted with love and care to step back from my keyboard for a second and ask:
Wait… what am I doing here?
A lot of us tend towards a certain self-flagellation when we evaluate our work. We want our work to resonate, but we know that not every leader or peer or audience is going to have he same reaction to it. In those situations, the most reasonable thing to do is probably to make something that reflects what we truly feel and believe and seek and to aspire towards making the parts of our work that connect with others resonate even more deeply with the people who get it. Instead of that, though, we often actively seek out the opinions of those whom we expect to disagree or dislike our work.
Of course, there can be tremendous value in “letting in” the opinions of those with high standards and turning to them as fuel to keep pushing our crafts forward. But… the instinct I’m describing is something different. It’s an instinct of fear; fear of the possibility that someone out might not love what we have to offer to the world. That instinct drives us to change our work and how we show up not out of the abundant desire to improve, but out of spite and a desire to find a perpetual state of comfort in our journey of making change and sharing it with the world.
And if I had let that fearful, spiteful instinct, it’s my belief that it would have eventually led me to manipulate my work in such a way that whatever quality led the person who messaged me to have the profoundly positive experience that they did may have become unrecognizable.
As usual, I don’t quite have the pithy one-liner to summarize my thinking on this idea, but I guess it’s something like this:
Not everyone is supposed to get you.
That might not feel comfortable to realize, but it’s ok for it to happen.
Because owning what your voice is – and what it isn’t – is the only way to get through with the people who really can hear you.
And not only will they be grateful for it – you will too.