Business Musings: Comparison is the Thief of Joy
I’m doing a lot of things here in Las Vegas that I only dreamed of doing when I lived in Oregon, especially small town Oregon. Sometimes I think I rolled myself into a little ball and cut out everything else. Some of that was health-related, some of it was the demanding job, but some of it was opportunity.
Not that I took advantage of a lot of opportunities when I had them.
Bear with me on this, particularly those of you who have read the blog for a long time.
The word “audition” used to scare the ever-living hell out of me. I won a lot of awards for singing, music, and performance when I was a child and as a teenager. I also modeled. I fell into it as a child because the photographer of the local newspaper wanted to date my older sister. She was one of those popular girls who treated her boyfriends like crap.
My mother used to assign her to babysit me, probably thinking it would keep her out of trouble. Instead, my sister used to pass me off on the wanna-be boyfriends, particularly the photographer. I was in the paper a lot.
Then she married, my parents and I moved to Wisconsin, and my mother still found a way for me to get photographed for the paper. I did a ton of artsy fartsy things, except actual drawing, which I sucked at. I competed a lot, but I never had to audition, until high school.
I don’t remember most of my auditions, but the last one—the very last one—sticks in my mind. I auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof. I was scared to death, and the music stuck in my throat. When it became clear to me that I couldn’t sing in tune at that moment, I apologized to the co-director.
“I go out of tune when I’m nervous,” I said.
She looked at me over the top of the piano. “Well, you’ll be nervous on opening night, won’t you?”
It was like an arrow to the heart. And that was it. I saw everything through that prism from that moment forward. If I was nervous, I would screw up.
What I didn’t see was this: I had blown the audition badly and I still got a singing part. (One of the two youngest daughters, Shprintze.) What I considered bad wasn’t awful. It just wasn’t good enough for a lead role.
I had no one to tell me these things. I had a perfectionist mother who believed one missed word, one missed note, ruined everything. So I decided to avoid anything that required auditioning…although I found ways around it.
I was in radio. I got my first job as a writer of copy, and eventually, I learned engineering and because we were short-handed, I went on the air a lot.
I had married another theater geek, and I had dreams of heading to New York. He would perform and I would write. That got tanked when he quit drama school after he had been chosen to work at a start-up theater (which later won a Tony). He “didn’t like the pay.”
Instead of looking at how far I had come, and what I had done, I compared myself to friends with more talent or at least more training. I slowly became quiet and didn’t even try difficult performance things, although my heart wanted to.
I compared…and found myself lacking.
More on that later too.
Fast forward to Las Vegas. Just before the start of the pandemic, I signed up for a voiceover class. Much has changed since I was in radio, and I wanted to know about the equipment, the editing software, and the norms for things like audiobooks. I didn’t give performance a single thought.
The first class was in March of 2020 and…nope. Didn’t happen. I wanted an in-person class, and there wasn’t one until July of this year.
What did happen, though, was that I was on the VO company’s mailing list. This is Vegas, folks. This company has Grammy and Emmy winners. It works with a sound studio that produces a lot of local and national commercials, as well as sound effects and voice-overs for all the theater in this city.
I kept getting notifications of auditions and online classes, none of which I took, and finally, when there was an in-person class, I signed up—
And had a blast. Seventy-five percent of the class was performance, sprinkled with a lot of learning about all the kinds of existing voiceover work. There’s an engineering course that I will take later in the year, if I can sign up (it fills fast), and there’s a lot more to learn.
Because I didn’t care about whether or not I was the best or even “good enough,” I tried all kinds of things. I had fun and I was eager to get in the booth and try something hard.
It knocked the rust off my radio skills, and reminded me how much I loved voice work. I had tried to revive some voice work back in Oregon, but I hadn’t felt comfortable, considering how much had changed.
And a lot had changed, but the fundamentals remained the same. One voice, one microphone, some engineering work, and ¡voila! a product. I had forgotten that.
So, while I was enmeshed with trying to work out which classes to take next, the VO studio sent an email about moving forward, and in it, had this quote:
Comparison is the thief of joy.
They sent it because students who finish that first class usually become a group who take other classes together. As in all of the arts, a group that starts from the same place does not stay in the same place. Some have early success. Some quit. Some work forever to make small gains. And some eventually become the solid folks in their field.
I’m not planning to become a major voice-over artist. I have a job. But I want to do a few things, and I want the skills (and the contacts) to hire the right people for the jobs I have.
Still, I stared at that comparison quote for a long time, and it got me thinking.
The writers I’ve been around, particularly those with some success, often compare themselves to others like this:
I’m more talented than XYZ Bestselling writer. How come he has all the luck?
And then they try to explain it to themselves, often with a result like this:
Oh, he’s successful because he dumbs his work down for the masses.
Or, he’s successful because he’s writing something trendy.
Or, he’s successful because he does more advertising than I do.
Or, he’s successful because he sucks up to everyone in power (in traditional publishing).
He’s never successful because of his abilities—not to that person. Not that it matters, either. In the arts, comparing two artists isn’t fair. They’re different. They’re on different paths.
Which was the point of the quote the VO studio sent.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
But I got to thinking about me and my history of performance.
I had married a man I thought would be my partner in theater. He quit and I was quite angry at him. I didn’t realize until later in life that he couldn’t hold any kind of high-end job. He got them, but then when he could no longer get by with charm and a warm smile, he would quit.
That major theater gig? He quit after being told no one was guaranteed a lead role, although everyone would be in the chorus or supporting. They would all be building sets and doing extra work because it was a start-up.
It sounded like fun to me.
It sounded like work to him.
Which became, I’m sad to say, the story of his life. (That becomes clear when you’re sixty-plus. You start to see the patterns.)
I was thinking about that and him, because—hey! performance—when I realized that we did have a performer in the family back in the day.
Me. I had not gone into live theater. I had gone into live radio.
Even after I gave up the radio job and moved west, I still did performance. I sat on panels at conventions, did readings, and was in front of crowds, a lot.
I had become a performer, not just on paper, but in person. But I did it sideways, because I hadn’t believed in myself.
Not just because of that awful audition decades ago, but because I had convinced myself that I wasn’t as talented as my friends. Instead of comparing and finding them lacking, I had compared and found myself lacking.
So much so that I hadn’t seen that I was still performing.
Comparison had stolen my joy as well.
What kind of joy, exactly?
Well, when I was in grade school, I wrote two big things. One was a picture book that I illustrated, copied on mimeograph machine, and hand-colored. (Yes, I’m old.) It was a class assignment and I loved it.
(That photo at the top of the blog? It was in the local paper. The kid in the ugly pants on the chair is me, reading my book to the other kids.)
I recently talked to an old friend from grade school who also remembered that assignment and thought it sheer torture.
The other thing I wrote was a play. Because I went to a special school attached to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, a school we would now call a school for the gifted and talented (gee, our parents had to audition us to get in), I was able to put on that play in a university theater, with my classmates in the starring roles.
Theater was part of what I wanted to do even then, but not as an actor. As a director and writer. (A highlight of my childhood: crossing that stage to applause and cries of “Author! Author!”)
Writing books and writing plays. Those were my joy. And over the years, I’ve written many a radio play, but no theatrical play.
Not because I was comparing myself to Neil Simon or anyone else, but because I thought I was so talentless in theater that I didn’t even deserve to think about it.
The realization was breath-taking. As I said above, when you’re sixty, you see life patterns. And one of mine was comparing in an area that was extremely important to me, and letting the joy leach out of my life.
I never did that with book and short story writing. I had declared myself “a hack” early on, and refused to compare. My interest in writing wasn’t in writing the Great American Novel (like my brother wanted to do). I didn’t study literature or anything that had a whiff of snob to it.
I read genre fiction and I wanted to write genre fiction. I figured it was disreputable among the university crowd I was raised in (my father was a professor), so it didn’t matter if I was the best or the worst.
I was writing for me, and that was all that mattered.
I had stumbled onto the secret without even knowing it.
I continue to write what I want in prose. Sometimes I have to put a pen name on things just so that I don’t do the comparison stuff—or have it foisted on me by unwitting writers/readers/friends. (How come you’re writing that? It’s beneath you. Or you’re wasting your time on it. Or whatever they say to knock me aside.)
But radio. Theater. Performance. Engineering.
Huh. Who knew that I slowly let those ease out of my life because I compared, because I opened the door to the thief of joy.
I know a lot of you have that problem. Most of you compare and find something wanting in yourself or you figure that the other person (persons?) cheated somehow and that’s why they’re doing better.
The problem isn’t that they’re doing better (which might be a perception thing) or because they’re more talented or because they try harder.
The problem is that you’re comparing.
I’m putting this up here as a cautionary tale. I lost something important in my life because I convinced myself I wasn’t worthy of it—due to comparison.
The ironic thing about a realization like that in my stage of life is I can now see where the people I compared myself to ended up.
My ex never stepped on a stage again after that job offer.
Another theater friend works for the National Institutes of Health as a researcher.
A third theater friend became a lawyer.
Only one of my theater friends went on to a career in theater and frankly, she had the right attitude. She didn’t care if she screwed up. She would try over and over again to be better.
She applied the attitude I have in writing to theater, and she has made a heck of a career out of it.
Not, mind you, the career she imagined. She’s not the toast of Broadway. Nor is she movie-star famous (which all of us wanted for her; she didn’t want it). She runs her own theater company and uses the arts to teach life skills.
Sometimes we get so serious inside our groups, so convinced of someone else’s talent or our own greatness, that we can’t see outside of that group.
The world is a large place. Even the most famous people in our country aren’t well known in other countries. Even the best-known writer is someone that non-readers haven’t heard of.
If you have a comparison problem, I have no psychological tricks to help you stop. I know a number of writers who acknowledge that comparison is a problem for them, but more than one of them has told me that’s how they’re “built.”
Which means there’s no real hope for them. They won’t open their mind to changing their own behavior.
But for the rest of you, think about that quote. It’s a good one.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
We don’t have enough joy in our lives right now thanks the damn pandemic. Stop stealing what little bit there is in your life. Enjoy what you can do.
As an artist, you are unique. Your skills are yours alone. Comparing them to someone else’s is a waste of time and a waste of your precious abilities.
We only have limited time on this earth, as 2020 reminded us. Spend it doing what brings you joy.
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“Business Musings: Comparison is the Thief of Joy,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog from the Superior Evening Telegram sometime in the early 1970s.