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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.

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Last Updated on February 18, 2019

Why It’s Never Too Late To Redefine Yourself

Why It’s Never Too Late To Redefine Yourself

The ability to reinvent and redefine yourself is a bold, daring and purposeful choice. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make a conscious, intentional choice and then follow through.

If the thought of forging a new path, changing habits, thought patterns and your inner circle of friends scares you – you’re not alone. Change can be a very scary thing. It takes courage, fortitude and a bit of faith to decide to shed your old self and don a new persona. However, it is one of the most critical processes one must repeatedly endure in the pursuit of destiny. Change unlocks new levels of potential.

The Need for Change

Everyday when we wake up, we make a decision. We decide to follow our routine or we decide to go off script and shake things up a bit. For those who are creatures of habit, routine is comfortable, easy and produces very little stress. The problem with this is, after a while you stop growing.

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We all reinvent ourselves at some point in our lives. It is absolutely necessary to achieve certain levels of success.

Reflect back on who you were as a teenager and then who you were at 25. Those are two very different people. Most of us are completely different. Your thought patterns changed, your appearance, job, level of education and even your friends– changed. We like to refer to this as “growing up” or maturing and consider it to be one of life’s natural progressions. However the changes you made were purposeful and deliberate.

This process must be a lifelong and continuous cycle. You are never too old to refresh yourself.

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Happy_old_man

    Signs It’s Time to Redefine

    “Just as established products and brands need updating to stay alive and vibrant, you periodically need to refresh or reinvent yourself.”– Mireille Guiliano

    So how do you know when it’s time for a system upgrade? There are signs along the way that alert you that it is time for an overhaul. The first sign is the feeling of being stuck. If you feel like you are in a rut, you’re bored with life or you need some newness and excitement, a self reinvention may be in order. Re-evaluate your life vision and your goals. Is that vision still valid and are your goals consistent with your vision and–are they achievable? If you are off course, it’s time for a change. If you are not moving forward and making progress, it’s time for a change.

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    In life, there’s no such thing as neutrality–you’re either moving forward or you are moving backward. Time constantly moves forward and if you are standing still, you are actually losing ground. No matter your age or stage in life– there is always room for improvement.

    “You’re never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” ~C. S. Lewis

    The second sign that you are due for a change is the occurrence of major life events in which change is forced upon you. Getting married, starting a new job, being promoted, ending a relationship, becoming a parenting or relocating are all prime opportunities to completely overhaul your life.

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    When these major shifts occur in your life–you have to shift with them. You can’t have a single mentality and have a successful marriage. You can’t remain selfish and irresponsible, and raise a healthy, well-adjusted child. You can’t be promoted to a supervisory position and keep the same subordinate attitude. Each level of success requires something different from you.

    Aronld in Predator

      Consider, for a moment, Arnold Schwarzenegger. People may have different opinions about his character and some of his life choices, but he is a master at reinventing himself. He achieved the ultimate success as a professional body builder by earning the title “Mr. Universe” three times. He then earned a tremendous amount of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry making action/adventure films. And in his latest role, he served two terms as the Governor of California. He succeeded as a professional body builder, a film star and a politician. Each role required massive amounts of change, commitment, strength and hard work.

      And if Arnold can do it…so can you!

      Featured photo credit: BK via flickr.com

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