Those words are pretty exclusive, if you think about it. Really, any kind of comparison is an excuse to ignore the lesser.
I’m prettier than she is.
I’m smarter than he is.
I’m taller than he is.
I’m skinnier than she is.
It works the other way, too. You can dismiss yourself. I’m uglier than he is. I’m fatter. I’m dumber.
I used to teach riding lessons to kids, mostly teenagers. If there is one skill teenaged women have, it’s comparing themselves to others. When riding horses, a lot of skills are pretty solidly objective. Can you sit the trot? Can you canter? Can you jump? How high?
Jumping is a popular skill for kids. It’s so easy to quantify. It’s easy to brag. It sounds impressive, and it’s easy to visualize. If you can jump a course of fences at three feet, it’s assumed you’re a better rider than someone who can only accomplish the same course at 2′. If you can finish that course in 90 seconds, you’re assumed to be a better rider than someone who took two minutes.
You’re better than they are.
Dressage is a lot more subjective. It’s the French word for training, but it’s an entire riding discipline on its own. It’s about feel. It’s about nuance. Skill. Talent. It’s tough to brag that you rode a balanced fifteen meter circle at the canter. It’s hard to boast that your horse finally moved through his back and dropped onto the bit. It can’t be quantified, and unless you ride horses, it’s tough to visualize. Dressage is often compared to ballet, and it’s an apt comparison. You don’t have to be a dancer to appreciate a talented ballerina performing en pointe–nor to wince at the train wreck in a tutu.
Just like you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate good writing–nor to recognize crap on a page.
There’s a tendency to identify ourselves as “better than” someone else. It’s human nature to want to be the best–I can’t dispute that, and I won’t even try. We’re competitive animals. I thrive on challenge. I love to win.
But finding that “better than” limit, it’s easy to settle. Really easy.
Writing, like dressage, is tough to quantify. I remember reading on the Absolute Write message boards that you needed to get ten “full manuscript” requests to land an agent, as if there were some magical query formula. I certainly didn’t get ten full requests. I didn’t get five.
I didn’t even get two.
That doesn’t make me a better writer than people who don’t have an agent, and I’d be stupid–and ignorant–to think it did. There’s an incredible amount of talent out there, still looking for agents. One of my bosses said today, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I wrote a good book and sent a query on the right day. My book isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s. My book is the best one I knew how to write.
My next book is going to be better.
But when we identify ourselves as better than someone else, we close the door on learning from that person. Once we’re on that pedestal, who wants to look down? But there’s a lot of talent among our peers. Maybe that writer who we dismissed for horrible dialogue can write the most amazing settings. Maybe the person whose characters might as well be floating heads in a whitewashed room can write some killer dialogue. Bad kissing scenes might be trumped by heart-racing tension.
Human nature dictates that we look forward, look up, climb higher. No matter what level we are, from the mega-bestseller to the fledgling writer–if we forget to acknowledge the skills of those around us, if we compare and dismiss, we’re missing an opportunity.
If you get used to being “better than,” you turn off your ability to simply get better.
Then, in no time at all, someone gets better than you.