As someone who makes a living being an “artist,” I’ve struggled to work in team environments. Seeing the world the way we do is a gift that can easily turn into a prison—locking us away from the possibility of meaningful work and deep relationships. At least, it did for me until I learned two important truths:
I’m not broken, and I’m not special.
Figuring that out is how we can actually thrive as creatives—professionally and relationally.
ALERT: dated movie reference in three, two, one:
“Your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.”
These are words spoken to the devilishly handsome, rule-breaking, riddled-with-daddy-issues, fighter pilot, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell; by the bald-headed, square-jawed, cigar-smoking, closet-antique-vase-collector, Navy Captain, Tom “Stinger” Jordan from the 1986 cinematic masterpiece Top Gun. After many years of denial and self-deception, I’ve come to the painful realization that I. AM. MAVERICK (minus the movie good looks and fighter pilot skills).
My marketable skills include studio and live musician, record producer, writer, creative director, music director, voice-over artist, woodworker, and erstwhile manager of people. I make a living doing all of these things, and I’m really good at what I do. Seriously! Just ask me. Unfortunately, these skills are wielded by a selfish, insecure, untrusting perfectionist with an addiction to praise. Facepalm.
So the problem is me, not you.
It is a terrible grace to discover that YOU are the cause of most of your problems, e.g., the last year of my life.
This particular existential crisis all began by me asking for input on a recording project I was working on. Such an ask was as foreign to me as fresh sushi in Arkansas. The input yielded incredible results—the thing I was making became one hundred times better than it otherwise would have been—and a gut punch to my ego.
“WHY GOD, WHY!!” I heard my inner Narcissus yell. “Why is this so much better now?”
The response was gentle but firm, “I’ve made you to need relationship. First, to need it with me. Second, to need it with people.”
Begin at the beginning It’s important to mention that I follow the God of the Bible. I’m also a work in progress.
After patching up my wounded ego, I began trying to understand; if this whisper from God was true, and not just the leftover pizza talking, what am I supposed to do about it? I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to convince the world, and myself, that I didn’t need help. My creative genius was the sole proprietor of the kingdom I built. So I went back to the beginning.
Genesis 2:18 says, And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
It wasn’t the pizza. I was designed, by the greatest designer in the history of designing, to be in partnership with others. Co-creating is not a maybe-sometimes thing. It is an all-the-time mandate. So, now what?!
Here’s what. “Steering the Titanic with a broken oar is impossible. IT CAN’T BE DONE!!” “Well, of course, it can’t be done. Nevermind that it’s broken. You’re using an oar!” *\This is a transcript from an actual internal dialogue.
I wish I could give you the “Five Steps to Ego Free Living,” but I can’t (see transcript of internal dialogue). That is the WRONG way to handle this kind of course correction. We need to take hold of the wheel and make gradual movements in the right direction.
I SAID GRADUAL!!!
1. My first movement was to include others in what I was creating (WITHOUT manipulating the process to get to a predetermined outcome.)
Said differently, I started asking: “Here’s what I’m doing, what do you think?”
2. The second movement was to let go of the wheel.
“BUT YOU JUST SAID…” I know, I know. This isn’t an exact science, people!
After I opened the “here’s what” box, I had to let go for a while and be OK with NOT being in control. I was trying to fundamentally change a life behavior. Feeling unstable was par for the course. And BTW, if you happen to try this in your own life, don’t be passive-aggressive or patronizing about it. That’s just sucky. You might as well steer the thing right into an iceberg. It’s gonna happen anyway, e.g., the last year of my life.
3. The third movement has been the hardest. I have to silence “me.” I know me. You know I know me. I know, you know, I know me. “Me” will always try and be the star of the show. “Me” wants the credit, the glory, the standing ovation. “Me” has an insatiable appetite.
The best way I’ve found to silence “Me” is to celebrate the greatness in others—NOT in a disingenuous or patronizing way—with true appreciation for what they’ve said or done. “Me” hates that and will eventually stop getting in the way.
There are more movements, some harder than others. These three seem to be daily requirements for me, though. Relationships are more important than anything I will ever create—I understand that now.
Everything I’ve ever made will one day be ash, added to the pile of ash that is all the things everyone else has ever made. The relationships I made in the process of making all the stuff, that’s what will live on.
The Creative’s Existential Crisis: How To Thrive Instead
What stood out to you most about this article? Why that?
Where do you see ego show up most in your work? Why there?
How is it impacting you?
What are you afraid will happen if you let go or ask for more feedback?
What’s one tangible way you could take a step towards thriving in community instead of striving on your own? Forward this article to a friend, tell them your plan, and ask them to help you make it happen.
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