The Theory of (Artistic) Relativity, Illustrated
Michelle Rial on Letting Go of Being the Best
The moment I arrived in New York at the very beginning of what one might call “a career,” two pieces of unsolicited advice were immediately thrust upon me: 1) Someone will always look better than you. 2) Someone will always look worse than you. These also apply to art and making art. (I was also told it’s pronounced HOW-ston Street, but that’s largely irrelevant outside of New York City.)
Someone will always be better. Someone will always be worse. Let’s call it the theory of relativity, which definitely does not already exist. We want to compare ourselves to others because we want to know where we stand. But is that comparison useful?
In art and creativity, and really in general, someone will always be better. You will want to be the best, but you probably aren’t. You will want to be first, but it’s not likely. Even if you thought you were first or best, you will carry the dread that someone else has already done this before (they have), or someone is doing it in tandem (they are), or someone has done it better (they did).
According to this made-up theory, I’m not alone in this, which is both comforting and distressing. It means someone else is probably also writing about all of this right now. Wait, what?! Really? Really truly? Is that what you heard? OK. Welp. Shut it all down. Shoot me into space. Nope, not far enough, keep going. OK, great, that’s good. Are you ser—someone else had the same space location idea? Literally the exact effing celestial coordinates? OK. Well. Forget it.
It’s OK. (Is it OK?)
For a person who is deeply uncomfortable with competition and came home with exactly zero eggs in childhood Easter egg hunts, I’ve spent a lot of my time on this earth avoiding competition while still comparing myself to other people. Seeing someone who is worse than I am at something makes me feel like I’m not the absolute worst. But wait, so what if I’m the worst? What is even the worst? Some of the most genius and stunning art is just an old wooden broomstick leaning against the wall. I sincerely do not mean to offend anyone whose art is a broomstick leaning against the wall. I’m sure it’s great.
So why does any of it matter? Why do you do what you’re doing? If you’re doing it for the attention, for the accolades, for the likes, then you’re already unhappy. When you do work for the end goal of getting attention, even the attention feels empty. Keep making work you’re proud of, and if you get attention for that, let it soak in—people like it! People appreciate what I do! That feels nice! Now it’s time to get back to work.
So maybe it’s not all relative. Do what you do and let people live! Let yourself live! Everything happens on your own time line, and all the time you spend torturing yourself over the success of other people is a distraction from the little time you have left in this life to do the thing you love doing.
Excerpted from Maybe This Will Help: How to Feel Better When Things Stay the Same by Michelle Rial. Used with the permission of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2020 by Michelle Rial.