Preface: This isn’t necessarily to anyone, but having just stepped into this industry recently, I’ve seen the perspective described below in fellow artists and thought this way as well at times, so I decided I would address it to save myself and hopefully others from future grief.
Have you ever caught yourself trying to out-perform a fellow artist (or even co-worker?) I used to. Well, let me just say that one-upmanship and outperforming as goals are quick shortcuts to a lonely life.
Let’s face it: A lot of parents raising children today want their kids to be successful. Success can mean a lot of things. Commonly it is seen as either having a lot of money or a big spotlight (preferably followed by a lot of money). It’s a nice dream. It can also be a destructive one down the road.
I have grown up in a highly competitive society, and statistically speaking the chances are pretty good that you have as well. Which may or may not be fine, but if you’re a freelancing artist, this certainly can pose a problem. If you’re a freelancing filmmaker like me, this can pose a bigger problem. To explain why, let me first back up.
When I say “highly competitive society” I don’t just mean something like sports and getting angry at everyone who is rooting for the other team at the Superbowl. While that’s a sure sign too, I’m referring to something deeper and more engrained. When I look around, I see a consumption-driven society. These consumer habits determine things like supply and demand of products and services. So businesses start up to fill or enter a marketplace as an option for consumers. Often, this business wishes to be the BEST option, because people desire the best for their money, and that’s how you attract customers. So, each business in a given field is competing with each other to be the BEST option for possible clients and customers.
This has all become quite normal. Unfortunately, it’s that last part about being the best, that often rubs off on people’s habits and attitudes in areas of life that it shouldn’t. Case study: freelancing as a filmmaker.
When you enter a collaborative medium and business, where it’s more than an office and 3rd-party partners filling needs, the model described above no longer functions neatly. In fact, trying to follow that way of business is an easy path to an unfulfilling career. That’s because you’re not some fast-food chain or pen manufacturer and competitor just trying to make a buck. There’s no Team A vs Team B. Filmmaking—and many industries like it—is not just about making a better or more attractive product. It’s about building relationships.
When you boil it down, there are two kinds of relationships inside this type of business: relationships with your clients, and relationships with your fellow artists. Both are equally important. Again, equally important. So when you try to be the BEST at your art, you’re actually trying to compete with your fellow artists. That’s half of your potential relationships in your industry. This is critical to understand. This mentality quickly loses both friends and contacts found in fellow artists that could otherwise help support you and your dreams in your life. AND, on the flip side, you’ll find yourself constantly comparing and feeling jealous of said fellow artists deemed “better” or “more successful” by you or other people. Trust me on this: there will always be someone and it’s never worth the comparison. We’re each on our own journey.
Sure, winning an Oscar for your films would be nice. Who doesn’t want to be recognized for their hard work by earning achievement points and reputation boosts through trophies? It’s a core human desire and need to be recognized and acknowledged. But don’t sacrifice relationships because of a mentality of competition.
I will end with the following list of reasons why you should just STOP trying to be the best at what you love to do:
- Competitiveness is anti-social. Filmmaking is in an inherently social framework, passion, and business. It doesn’t go together.
- It’s effectively impossible. There’s only one who is the BEST. It’s a singular descriptor. So odds are, you’ll never achieve that. There will always be people better than you…accept it and move on.
- Check your motives. What’s the point of trying to be the best? Is your efforts going to make you happy in the end? (unlikely) It could in fact just make you bitter.
- Talent isn’t the point, relationships is. In fact, try boasting to someone just how good and talented you are at what you do. See how long they tolerate you before they give you the cold shoulder. No one likes a proud, self-serving person.
Yes, you should challenge and push yourself to become better and better and grow in your skills in your particular field. That is good and normal, and necessary to keep doing what you love for a living. No, that challenge shouldn’t sound anything like, “Try to make a better film than [insert name] just did.”
When I stay outside this mentality, things are much easier in both my work and relationships. I can feel happy for my friends when they achieve things rather than bitter or jealous. Work is no longer a constant chore of trying to catch up to other people, but a fun, adventurous process of growing both my skills and myself as a person as I constantly learn new things.
Before a group of people descend on me saying that you’re operating in a business and competition is a prerequisite, I want to reply that of course it is and I know that. I’m not just saying let’s all hold hands and be friends, because that’s obviously not how business works as a whole. But you should still not try to be the best. People hear that too much. It becomes noise to tune out. As Luke Neumann over at Neumann Films once put it, don’t be the best. Be unique. Learn what makes you and your service different and unique for your potential client’s needs, and market that.
As I once read somewhere, “Collaborate for the greater good rather than compete for the lesser.” That’s sure to take you far.