Team Players: Competing Creatively For The Greater Good
Nine years ago when I had begun my foray into millinery by making and selling absurdly time-consuming turban-style hats, I got the idea to create a headpiece using the same mould, but draped instead in fringe, to create a wig-like effect. I sketched out the idea, but I never got around to creating it. Which is why a year later, after relocating to NYC, I was surprised and delighted to come across an older woman wearing a nearly identical fringe wig hat at a vintage shopping event.
I was swift to compliment it, and she replied telling me that she makes them. I responded with something about always wanting to make myself a hat like that, to which she replied coldly:
Her tone caught me off guard. Who was she to police my art? My idea that I had thought up organically a whole year before our brief encounter. I found myself faced with a range of negative emotions around the interaction. I had said nothing about potentially manufacturing or selling fringe hats– only that I had always wanted to make one, and I revealed no information about the specifics of my design.
I left the event feeling confused. Was it so naive to expect another creator to bond with me over sharing a similar idea and aesthetic? I’m taking a stand to say, absolutely-fuckin’-not!
I knew creative competition had gone too far when recently, a friend reached out to me with help for the charity fundraiser she’s started by first apologizing to me that the aesthetics she’d chosen for the branding were similar to mine. I didn’t feel bothered in the slightest by the pink and red graphics and chunky fonts, but I instantly felt a pang of cultural resentment around the need to customarily apologize in the first place.
I create art because I want to inspire more art. It’s a bonus when I get to inspire more art that I actually like. If I had it my way, every charity would have a pink logo, there’d be a colorful mural on every wall, and cute rainbow clothes would be the norm. I can’t change the world on my own, so why should I compete with those who share my vision?
I find this issue is especially prevalent in women-oriented online communities. The amount of infighting I’ve both participated in, and scrolled through comment threads of, doesn’t make me feel like a hashtag #boss. It makes me feel sad, and lonely, and frightened to flex my creative muscles in fear of accidentally stepping on the toes of somebody else.
The amount of infighting I’ve both participated in, and scrolled through comment threads of, doesn’t make me feel like a hashtag #boss.
See, competition is a weird thing because when we’re coming from a positive place, it’s not only better for us, it’s better for our whole community. I’m talking about say, setting our own standards high and focusing on leveling up our own work (different than fixating on out-performing those around us), setting personal goals but not getting hung up on the outcome based on the experiences of others, opting instead to embrace our own individual journey (this one’s like, setting a goal of becoming a big success, but not comparing your career path to those around you chasing a similar niche goal), and also, working toward goals greater than yourself and your own star power so you can work with similarly minded folks and together focus your competitiveness on those seeking to push an opposite agenda via a similar platform (aka: work together to change the world, avoid “fame” as the end goal, and save your fierce competitiveness for the voting booth).
But so much of the competition I fall witness to has been the opposite– self-important and fear-oriented. Un-focused on one’s own journey in favor of calling out anyone who dares to venture into similar territory. A kind of “stay out of my corner” domination. I’m not talking about cookie cutter rip offs of someone’s hard work– there’s a special place in hell for those who participate in the known carbon copying and resale theft of small brands and indie artists for profit. I’m referring to the popular concept of wasting energy on trying to erase those creating with similar ideas because we’ve made up our minds that there’s only room for one in this world and we’re willing to fight dirty to earn our place on that throne.
I’m actually in a really vulnerable position writing this because I’m no stranger to bearing the brunt of misdirected competitive resentment. To the extent that it’s ended professional working relationships, severed bonds, and created distance between myself and some of the most talented people I’ve had the honor of calling my friends over the years. I hate this so much, because I see the after effects echoed in so many others who have been wound up in similar social complexities.
I used to wonder why I had heard so many young artists say they were wary about getting close to others within their circle. However, feeling essentially spat out the other end of an unhealthily competitive creative atmosphere after entering it years earlier– green from my time creating in the Seattle DIY scene, I have too, learned to exercise an unfortunate caution when bonding with those of whom I should be building an empire with, instead of attempting to remain an island.
I can’t help but consider this a feminist issue from my standpoint. Living in an era where women have the opportunity to advance in business, dress for themselves, and basically fucking conquer, it’s an absolute shame to me to experience so much disharmony perpetuated by those who crave all the glory, and fear that there’s not enough to go around. Healthy competition comes from a place of abundance. If we continue to perpetuate and act upon the notion that other girls, other artists, other designers, and other fucking badass folks are holding us back by doing their thing, we only continue to uphold the outdated misogynistic idea of women undercutting each other as the societal norm. The prize used to be a a good man, but in an age where money, social following, and accalaids ring true, our gaze has shifted onward and the stakes are higher than ever.
We don’t see the creator at all, but instead, a reflection of our own perceived shortcomings.
There’s a theory that the way we treat others is actually a reflection of ourselves. As creators, when we see someone on a similar path, our minds catapult to viewing it instantly as our own downfall. “That’s a cool concept” becomes “Why didn’t I think of that?”. “We both were thinking the same thing” becomes “She stole my idea!”. And “she’s helping expand my reach” becomes “she’s going to steal my following”. We don’t see the creator at all, but instead, a reflection of our own perceived shortcomings. Imagine if instead, creating a similar product, embracing a similar aesthetic, and catering to the same audience, could be a fantastic way to broaden our circles, grow our collective customer base, and unlock bigger and better opportunities for all of us now, and down the road.
Personally I don’t want to live a lonely life of being the only weirdo making art and dressing up in a world where there’s no-one to collaborate, bond, grow, and celebrate with. We may be on our own journeys, but we should always accepting of the teammates running laps along-side us. It’s not a race without competitors, but when we run together for a cause bigger than ourselves, where everybody helps each other to make it over the finish line, we create a traffic-stopping marathon. We hit the goal together. We make a big difference. I’m up for the challenge, are you?