There is a tension between competitiveness and creativity that is difficult to write about without sounding like either a hopeless fool or a hard-arsed, well, fool.
On the one hand, I want to believe that “competition” is a distraction from the creative mindset; that my creative output is disconnected from the arena of competition that we associate with, say, commerce or sport.
On the other hand, I want people to buy it. This is worth unpacking! – so here goes. My sense-making about “competition” takes its cues from (a) our lived experience of the physical universe and (b) our relationship with time.
We live on the rarer part of the surface of this planet – the ground, as opposed to the water. That ground is infested with naturally occurring mortal dangers – spiders, snakes, crocodiles, lions, deadly nightshade. If you venture into the water, you’ll likely drown and be eaten, and not necessarily in that order.
A lion demonstrates a conception of time every time it chases prey. It expresses a relationship with the past (I haven’t eaten lately), the present (I see food), and the future (I eat to keep breathing). We have a more sophisticated relationship with time than does the lion. Our voices give us the ability to tell stories about the past. Our stories provide us with a heightened sense of danger in the present, and opportunity in the future. Our enhanced relationship with the future gives us pause to plan, practice, accumulate, aspire – and create. But we still share the basics with the lion – we’re in constant competition with time to obtain resources sufficient to keep us breathing. Meanwhile, the physical universe (up to and including the lion) does everything it can, every day, to stop us breathing. It gets more morbid but let’s just leave it at that! Against this backdrop, it seems likely that our creative instincts are inextricably intertwined with our survival instincts. Maslow’s self-actualisation sits atop – and is therefore dependent on – lower order needs.
Art for art’s sake
To explore this further, let’s consider the proverbial starving artist in the garret. A quick internet search will reveal that this notion is widely considered a myth. But the construct is useful because it asks us to imagine someone who is dedicated to their art at the expense of all other considerations, even to the point of starvation. This is an entirely plausible dimension of the human condition (if rare given it flies in the face of our relationship with the universe and time). But it also sets up a paradox: art for art’s sake alone demands that the artist never shows their art to another person.
SHARING YOUR ART UNAVOIDABLY INVITES COMPARISON. AND TO COMPARE IS TO COMPETE
Entering the arena
If you’re a musician and you’re not sold on this: look somewhere deep for your feelings about your music plans when they pan out the way you hoped – and also when they don’t look somewhere deep for your reaction when you hear someone play your instrument at a technical standard beyond your current capability look somewhere deep for your reaction when you see someone experiencing musical “success” with an apparent absence of the fabled 10,000 hours I’ve concluded that when our conscious mind is saying that our creativity is outside the arena of competition, we’re shouldering an incoherence with deeper feelings that are the product of our relationship with the universe, and with time. The further paradox is that this incoherence has the potential to undermine our competitive capability, especially relative to those who don’t carry that burden. This means that competing is not a distraction from a creative mindset – it’s an unavoidable feature. So perhaps the better question is not whether we compete, but how we compete.
The answer will be different for everyone. For me, the answer is bound up with the tension I sense between the competitive spirit and the creative spirit, and a desire to find a way to relieve that tension. So the challenge I set myself is to do these three things as often as possible:
Celebrate other people’s creativity
Champion other people’s creativity
Consume other people’s creativity
All of this is academic in the face of a complete absence of opportunity to enter the live music arena. Let’s not take anything away from the extraordinary decimation and neglect the live music industry is facing in the wake of the pandemic. But steadfast as I am in the belief that live music will be back in some form before long if you’re a gigging musician I recommend taking some time to reflect on your own disposition to the competitive dynamic as we approach the end of Lockdown 6. It’ll soon be time to enter the arena…