Posted Nov 10, 2010
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy, Iago warns Othello, It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.
Jealousy, the envy of someone else or someone else’s possessions, cannot kill a life in music, but it can rob that life of all the sweetness that’s to be had in it. This chapter is on learning to reconcile yourself with feelings of jealousy and of ambition. How you learn to cope with each will be crucial in how much you’re able to enjoy the career you’re working hard to make.
Before I go on, I’d like to state, for the record, that I know a little something about jealousy, first and second-hand. I have struggled with my own impulses and allowed people into my life who have poisoned my hard-won victories with their own jealousy. I’m not saying that I am any more an expert in it than you are, but I do believe that dealing with jealousy is important if you want your art, and thus your life, to be good and rewarding.
Watch two dogs fighting over a bowl of food. What do you see? One dog has control of the food, while the other dog wants control of it. Neither dog is necessarily interested in eating the food, but they are fearful of not having it. The dog defending the bowl isn’t eating from it, and the dog who wants the food can’t get at it. Meanwhile the food sits there, and neither one enjoys it. Anyone who has watched two dogs fight over a bowl of food knows that jealousy is hardwired into our brains at such a deep level we’ll never get at it. As such, it’s impossible to correct. We feel jealousy, and that’s that. Now the question is, how do we learn to live with it and use it to make our life in music a happier one?
I believe strongly that jealousy has a place in art. To deny that we want something that belongs to someone else – be it respect, vision, courage, impetuosity, doggedness, money, sandwiches – is to deny in ourselves a basic animal impulse. If we are artists, what else are we but the expressive barometers of animal experience? How are we supposed to function as artists if we pretend to hold ourselves aloof from jealousy? So, the first step in dealing with jealousy is owning up to your feelings. Jealousy is apparently not just a part of being a human, it’s a part of being an animal. Acceptance of jealous feelings must come first before we try to deal with them.
After accepting jealousy as a necessary evil, the next step is to look at the times we feel jealousy in our professional lives. Usually it seems to be over some vague idea of career advancement. Perhaps a friend of yours has gotten offered their own show. Maybe someone’s record got a great review in the newspaper, while yours was overlooked. Maybe you work really hard on your songs, but someone else gets the accolades for their (seemingly) inferior writing.
What strikes me about all of these examples, and the example of the dogs and the food bowl, is that jealousy seems to be about trying to get a hold on something over which we, none of us, has control. A peer of yours gets a great tour with a popular band. That could just have easily happened to you, but it didn’t. You had no control over it. Neither did they. People at an open mic like some girl’s song better than yours. You’d like to have control over people’s tastes, but alas and alack, that will never happen. You have no control over what people gravitate towards. Neither does the girl. She’s only playing her music, just like you.
Like the food in the dog’s bowl, most of what happens in our lives, professional and personal, is impermanent. One day he has the food, the next day I do. If I spend my time trying to hold on to the impermanence of the moment, I miss out on what the moment is there for. And the moment is for making art, because making art makes us happy, and if we are happy we are making a life for ourselves.
Artists are empathetic people. They have a great capacity to feel the emotions of others. As such, they are easily able to imagine, rightly or wrongly, what it must be like to be someone else; someone more popular, more good-looking, funnier, wealthier. It is this ability to imagine that gives us the power to do create, but empathy is (again alas) threaded through with strong streaks of jealousy. A little imagination can go a long way towards envisioning what our life would be like if only such-and-such happened to us instead of to the other guy. We imagine ourselves in his place, and those grapes he is eating no doubt taste far better than these sour ones we ended up with. Well, imagining yourself in his place isn’t bad as long as you do something constructive with it.
This is where ambition, the other side of the jealous coin, comes in. Ambition is the part that needs to take over when we see something we want. While jealousy sits and stews in it’s own juices, ambition gets up and uses its imagination to make opportunities.
Jealousy is easy. It requires no effort to begrudge someone else their success. Ambition is harder. It sees all the same things that jealousy does, and yet it mixes with this vision a desire to work. You have your goals, don’t you? You’re working towards them, right? This is ambition. Someone may get there before you. Lord knows, I’ve had my fair share of moments in my career when I just stood there scratching my head at the person standing in the place that I thought was mine. But I have my goals. They’re mine and they’ll bring me my own victories.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in over ten years of playing music is this: When you’re up, you’re up. When you’re down, you’re down. You can never hold on to or extend the moments when you’re up. The last moment of a show, the moment when the band and I are taking a bow, that moment cannot be made longer no matter how much I may want it to. It will pass, and my memory of it will be all there is. If you can learn to appreciate the good moments while they’re happening, to you (even to the point of writing them down in your goals notebook while the aura of victory is still fresh) you can more easily let others appreciate their own victories without being as jealous.
Again, we come back to the pernicious notion that art is effortless. When we begrudge someone their victories we are giving into the notion that they didn’t work hard to be where they are. We are also short-changing our own hard work, as if, if only we had worked harder we might have gotten the reward we are so jealous of.
You can’t make a real life in music without a healthy dose of artistic ambition, and you can’t have ambition without some measure of jealousy. Just make sure that as you’re forgiving yourself for your irrational envies, that you’re doing the work you’ve set for yourself in order to live up to your own goals.
Next Week, “The Opening Set.”