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Martha Graham on the Hidden Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

Martha Graham on the Hidden Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

Agnes de Mille had just achieved the greatest success of her career, but right now the only thing she felt was confusion.

She was a dancer and a choreographer. Early in her career, de Mille had created the choreography for a ballet called Three Virgins and a Devil. She thought it was good work, but nobody made much of it.

A few years later, de Mille choreographed a ballet named Rodeo. Again, she thought her work was solid, but it resulted in little commercial fame.

Then, in 1943, de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, a musical show from Rodgers and Hammerstein that enjoyed nearly instant success. In the coming years, Oklahoma! would run for an incredible 2,212 performances, both around the nation and abroad. In 1955, the film version won an Academy Award.

But the success of Oklahoma! confused her. She thought that her work on Oklahoma! was only average compared to some of her other creations. She later said, “After the opening of Oklahoma!, I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha.”

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Martha was Martha Graham, perhaps the most influential dance choreographer of the 20th century. (Although not as well-known by the general public, Graham has been compared to other creative geniuses like Pablo Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright.)

During their conversation, de Mille told Graham about her frustration. “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.” [1]

Graham responded by saying,

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

The Uselessness of Judging Yourself

For nearly two years, I have been publishing articles every Monday and Thursday on JamesClear.com. Some days the words come easier than others, and there have been plenty of times when I have felt a smaller version of what Agnes de Mille felt.

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“I thought this was a good article. Why don’t people seem to enjoy it?” Or, I’ll feel like I mailed it in on a piece only to see it become the most popular post of the month. Regardless of the outcome, I’ve realized one thing: we are often terrible judges of our own work.

Martha Graham’s advice takes this concept a step further by explaining that not only are you a bad judge of your own work, it is not your job to judge your own work. It is not your place to compare it to others. It is not your responsibility to figure out how valuable it is or how useful it can be. It is not your job to tell yourself, “No.”

Instead, your responsibility is to create. Your job is share what you have to offer from where you are right now. To quote Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher, your job is to “come as you are.” (And then find your inner Sisu and keep coming.)

There are people in nearly every field of work who make each day a work of art by the way they do their craft. In other words, nearly everyone is an artist in one way or another. And every artist will judge their work. The key is to not let your self-judgment keep you from doing your thing. Professionals produce, even when it isn’t easy.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

In grade school, I remember my teacher passing out an assignment and telling each student to “keep your eyes on your own paper.”

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Perhaps she was simply trying to teach 8-year-olds to not cheat, but hidden within that phrase is also a deeper message about what really matters. It doesn’t make a difference what the person next to you writes down for his answer. This is your race to run. It’s your assignment to complete. It’s your answer to create. How your paper compares to someone else’s is not the point. The point is to fill the paper with your work.

The same can be said of your work today. No matter what you spend your days doing, every morning you wake up and have a blank piece of paper to work with. You get to put your name at the top and fill it with your work.

If what you write on your paper doesn’t meet someone else’s expectations … it is no concern of yours. The way someone else perceives what you do is a result of their own experiences (which you can’t control), their own tastes and preferences (which you can’t predict), and their own expectations (which you don’t set). If your choices don’t match their expectations that is their concern, not yours.

Your concern is to do the work, not to judge it. Your concern is to fall in love with the process, not to grade the outcome. Keep your eyes on your own paper.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

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Sources

1. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes De Mille. pg. 264.

Thanks to Paul Jun for pointing me to the story of Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham.

More by this author

James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Published on May 4, 2021

How To Spot Fake People (And Ways To Deal With Them)

How To Spot Fake People (And Ways To Deal With Them)

They say we are the average of the five persons we spend the most time with. For a minute, consider the people around you. Are they truly who your “tribe” should be or who you aspire to become in the future? Are they really genuine people who want to see you succeed? Or are they fake people who don’t really want to see you happy?

In this article, I’ll review why it is important to surround yourself with genuine individuals—the ones who care, bring something to our table, and first and foremost, who leave all fakeness behind.

How to Spot Fake People?

When you’ve been working in the helping professions for a while, spotting fake people gets a bit easier. There are some very clear signs that the person you are looking at is hiding something, acting somehow, or simply wanting to get somewhere. Most often, there is a secondary gain—perhaps attention, sympathy, or even a promotion.

Whatever it is, you’re better off working their true agenda and staying the hell away. Here are some things you should look out for to help spot fake people.

1. Full of Themselves

Fake people like to show off. They love looking at themselves in the mirror. They collect photos and videos of every single achievement they had and every part of their body and claim to be the “best at what they do.”

Most of these people are actually not that good in real life. But they act like they are and ensure that they appear better than the next person. The issue for you is that you may find yourself always feeling “beneath” them and irritated at their constant need to be in the spotlight.

2. Murky in Expressing Their Emotions

Have you ever tried having a deep and meaningful conversation with a fake person? It’s almost impossible. It’s because they have limited emotional intelligence and don’t know how they truly feel deep down—and partly because they don’t want to have their true emotions exposed, no matter how normal these might be.

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It’s much harder to say “I’m the best at what I do” while simultaneously sharing “average” emotions with “equal” people.

3. Zero Self-Reflection

To grow, we must accept feedback from others. We must be open to our strengths and to our weaknesses. We must accept that we all come in different shapes and can always improve.

Self-reflection requires us to think, forgive, admit fault, and learn from our mistakes. But to do that, we have to be able to adopt a level of genuineness and depth that fake people don’t routinely have. A fake person generally never apologizes, but when they do, it is often followed with a “but” in the next breath.

4. Unrealistic Perceptions

Fake people most often have an unrealistic perception of the world—things that they want to portray to others (pseudo achievements, materialistic gains, or a made-up sense of happiness) or simply how they genuinely regard life outside themselves.

A lot of fake people hide pain, shame, and other underlying reasons in their behavior. This could explain why they can’t be authentic and/or have difficulties seeing their environment for the way it objectively is (both good and bad).

5. Love Attention

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest sign that something isn’t quite right with someone’s behavior can be established by how much they love attention. Are you being interrupted every time you speak by someone who wants to make sure that the spotlight gets reverted back to them? Is the focus always on them, no matter the topic? If yes, you’re probably dealing with a fake person.

6. People Pleaser

Appreciation feels nice but having everyone like you is even better. While it is completely unrealistic for most people to please everyone all the time, fake people seem to always say yes in pursuit of constant approval.

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Now, this is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, these people are simply saying yes to things for their own satisfaction. Secondly, they often end up changing their minds or retracting their offer for one reason or another (“I would have loved to, but my grandmother suddenly fell ill.”), leaving you in the lurch for the 100th time this year.

7. Sarcasm and Cynicism

Behind the chronic pasted smile, fake people are well known for brewing resentment, jealousy, or anger. This is because, behind the postcard life, they are often unhappy. Sarcasm and cynicism are well known to act as a defense mechanism, sometimes even a diversion—anything so they can remain feeling on top of the world, whether it is through boosting themselves or bringing people down.

8. Crappy friend

Fake people are bad friends. They don’t listen to you, your feelings, and whatever news you might have to share. In fact, you might find yourself migrating away from them when you have exciting or bad news to share, knowing that it will always end up one way—their way. In addition, you might find that they’re not available when you truly need them or worse, cancel plans at the last minute.

It’s not unusual to hear that a fake person talks constantly behind people’s backs. Let’s be honest, if they do it to others, they’re doing it to you too. If your “friend” makes you feel bad constantly, trust me, they’re not achieving their purpose, and they’re simply not a good person to have around.

The sooner you learn to spot these fake people, the sooner you can meet meaningful individuals again.

How to Cope With Fake People Moving Forward?

It is important to remind yourself that you deserve more than what you’re getting. You are worthy, valuable, precious, and just as important as the next person.

There are many ways to manage fake people. Here are some tips on how to deal with them.

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1. Boundaries

Keep your boundaries very clear. As explained in the book Unlock Your Resilience, boundaries are what keep you sane when the world tries to suffocate you. When fake people become emotional vampires, make sure to keep your distances, limit contact, and simply replace them with more valuable interactions.

2. Don’t Take Their Behavior Personally

Sadly, they most likely have behaved this way before they knew you and will continue much longer after you have moved on. It isn’t about you. It is about their inner need to meet a void that you are not responsible for. And in all honesty, unless you are a trained professional, you are unlikely to improve it anyway.

3. Be Upfront and Honest About How You Feel

If your “friend” has been hurtful or engaged in behaviors you struggle with, let them know—nicely, firmly, however you want, but let them know that they are affecting you. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you’ll feel better and when you’re ready to move on, you’ll know you tried to reach out. Your conscience is clear.

4. Ask for Advice

If you’re unsure about what you’re seeing or feeling, ask for advice. Perhaps a relative, a good friend, or a colleague might have some input as to whether you are overreacting or seeing some genuine concerns.

Now, don’t confuse asking for advice with gossiping behind the fake person’s back because, in the end, you don’t want to stoop down to their level. However, a little reminder as to how to stay on your own wellness track can never hurt.

5. Dig Deeper

Now, this one, I offer with caution. If you are emotionally strong, up to it, guaranteed you won’t get sucked into it, and have the skills to manage, perhaps you could dig into the reasons a fake person is acting the way they do.

Have they suffered recent trauma? Have they been rejected all their lives? Is their self-esteem so low that they must resort to making themselves feel good in any way they can? Sometimes, having an understanding of a person’s behavior can help in processing it.

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6. Practice Self-Care!

Clearly, putting some distance between the fake person and yourself is probably the way to go. However, sometimes, it takes time to get there. In the meantime, make sure to practice self-care, be gentle with yourself, and compensate with lots of positives!

Self-care can be as simple as taking a hot shower after talking to them or declining an invitation when you’re not feeling up to the challenge.

Spotting fake people isn’t too hard. They generally glow with wanna-be vibes. However, most often, there are reasons as to why they are like this. Calling their behavior might be the first step. Providing them with support might be the second. But if these don’t work, it’s time to stay away and surround yourself with the positivity that you deserve.

Final Thoughts

Remember that life is a rollercoaster. It has good moments, tough moments, and moments you wouldn’t change for the world. So, look around and make sure that you take the time to choose the right people to share it all with.

We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so take a good look around and choose wisely!

More Tips on Dealing With Fake People

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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