Imagine you are holding on to your child by the wrist. She is up to her neck in deep water and you are lying face down on the pier keeping her from going under. She is looking up at you and the fear on her face compels you to hold on even tighter, to never let go, until help arrives.
Derek Sivers has written that we as creative people must know what motivates us. What do we want? What gets us up in the morning?
Is it money? Is it fame? Is it fear?
If we know this, he says, we will be able to more effectively go after what we want. I think there’s more to it than that, though. I discovered what I want, and it’s been keeping me from getting it.
That’s confusing, isn’t it? Even so, what I wrote is true. For years I’ve pursued something without realizing it, and my blind pursuit has actually prevented me from succeeding.
In order to maintain internal respect for myself and my abilities, I needed outward signs of respect from everyone else. When I felt respected, or when I did something that I believed would bring me that respect, I was happiest. When I felt disrespected, or when I was unable to work towards that respect, I was miserable.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with wanting respect, except that I wasn’t aware exactly that was motivating me. Because I didn’t realize what I was chasing, I often prevented myself from getting it. I prioritized my feelings without examining them accurately.
Often people would respect me and, because I didn’t realize or feel it, I would do unnecessary things that confused and even alienated them. Other times, I would believe I was deserving of respect when I wasn’t. The subsequent reactions of others to my inadequate contributions confused and demoralized me.
Just this week an editor returned a draft of one of my articles to me with drastic revisions. The changes were so intrusive in places that I was devastated. Clearly she didn’t respect me or my work. I wanted to send her a nasty letter letting her know that she was obviously incompetent and that I would retract the article.
Fortunately I know myself well enough to mistrust any knee-jerk reaction like this. I slept on it, kept the revisions I thought were worthwhile, and returned the article to her for more editing. Her response was enthusiastic, and I realized that she was focused on creating a quality work, while I was only focused on getting respect.
Because I was unaware of my consuming desire for respect, I nearly prevented myself from finishing a good piece. Instead of getting respect from the editor for my hard work, and receiving a respectful reaction from an audience for a good piece, I would have gotten nothing. By pursuing my sense of respect, I would have gotten less of it.
I may always crave respect. If being respected makes me happy, there’s something valid in that. But what if giving up my quest for respect could bring other benefits?
Lately, as I’ve been playing jazz, I’ve discovered that the less I think about how much people will respect my solo while I’m playing, the more successful I am at playing one. In my teaching, kids will often be disrespectful and if I am focused on that, I may miss many opportunities to discover what they need. In my writing, I may end up creating pages that are insulated with a sheen of respect-generating competence without ever risking communicating something fragile and beautiful.
Seeing my desire for respect, I can decide when I really need it, and when I am just reacting to the possibility of losing it. Not an easy task. The results, however, might be transformative.
Imagine your child is up to her neck in deep water and you are lying face down on the pier holding her by the wrist. Taking a deep breath, you let her go and watch her head sink under the surface of the water.
And then she swims.