As an artist, you might actually be special. You might have found your authentic voice and be doing work that nobody else could or would produce. You might be that rare thing – a unicorn. Thought to be mythical, but here you are – unique and peerless. The trouble is, being special isn’t the whole story, is it? There are pitfalls and hidden dangers, which nobody warns you about.
A very creative friend of mine posted a link to this interesting article, this morning:
That’s a very good summary, I think, but an incomplete one. It writes from the point of view of why generation Y is not happy, but I think the wider point to address is why people that are special aren’t getting everything they think they want from life or their artistic, creative careers.
Here’s my list of what they never tell you about being special (no prizes for guessing how I figured most of them out):
- It’s not just generation Y – The problem of being told you’re special and feeling that you are special is not unique to generation Y. Loads of baby boomers (and others) have felt that same disconnect between expectations and recognition. Sure, earlier generations had to struggle against a lot more negative hate talk about following your own bliss (“get a real job, you bum”, “who do you think you are, mister?”). They probably started from a position of not having very much self-confidence remaining, but all the coaching and popular psychology encouraged them to become that indispensible linchpin. They were told to find out what they were really good at and passionate about and to make that their life’s work. In short, they were encouraged to discover what was special about them. Having done so, they finished up right where generation Y started – having a sense of entitlement, because they were special, but finding that their expectations were rarely fulfilled.
- Having your self esteem intact is an asset, but it’s not everything – Starting your life’s journey with your self-esteem intact is a tremendous advantage. Take that from somebody that didn’t. That self-belief, knowing and never doubting that you can succeed at things you try hard at is positive, mostly realistic and a better stand point than believing yourself to be an incompetent imposter, with nothing out of the ordinary to bring. Being self-confident is great, provided it doesn’t spill over into delusional overconfidence and hubris. However, if you have your self-confidence in healthy order, you rapidly discover that it isn’t enough to cause your expectations to be met. There’s a lot of other hard work to do and characteristics to develop, before you get close. Being able to “blag it” might get you an opportunity, but it won’t necessarily produce the results.
- Special is the new ordinary – These days, everybody thinks they’re special (and that everybody else isn’t), but if everybody thinks that way, then nobody is actually special (by definition) and special becomes the expected baseline. Who knows? Maybe you really are quite special, or above the average, but it’s hard to be noticed as such. Mostly, people assume you are about as special as everybody else is special.
- You might be special, but that doesn’t entitle you to anything – You may have amazing super powers and be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but so what? That doesn’t mean people should shower you with accolades, praise and wealth. There is no logical correlation between being able to do certain things very well, even exceptionally well and being treated to a life of idle privilege and opulence. These things are not connected. You’re probably not exceptional at everything (even the most accomplished polymaths are not), so you will be dependent on somebody else for something. Why should you be given special treatment and those that serve you, using their special skills and talents, not?
- Your expectations are probably sky high and unrealistic – Being really good at what you do can make you think (erroneously) that there are no competitors, no realistic alternatives to your offering, that the market for your talent is infinite, endless and so crammed with excess, spare cash, that you’re bound to own multiple luxury cars and homes, to holiday abroad several times a year and to live the life of a jetsetter. Sadly, the more specialised you are, the more restricted is your applicability to the lives of other people. Some people may need you, but not everybody. You’re too specialised. They might want exactly what you have, but be stone cold broke. Your expectations probably don’t factor these unfortunate realities into the equation.
- If everybody is special, it’s a level playing field – When every offer, in the market, is backed by somebody genuinely special, then the playing field is level and it is very hard to distinguish yourself or become noticed. There is no particular advantage conferred to you, other than giving you a chance to compete with all the other very special people. It’s actually quite difficult to become so outstanding that everybody that needs you knows you. Even if you do, they still might not want you, even if they need you, if you’re too full of yourself and overconfident.
- Finding the organisation that needs your kind of special is a needle-in-the-haystack search – You might have become the world’s best treacle bender, but what exactly is a treacle bender and what kind of organisation needs the best treacle bender in the world? Your speciality might have such narrow geek appeal that there is next to nobody that even understands what you do and fewer still that really need you. If your mother doesn’t understand what you do, you can guarantee few other people do. Your potential customer base might dwindle to under a dozen organisations.
- Even if you are a perfect fit and crucial to them, they’ll try to get you on the cheap – An interesting game of bluff takes place when an organisation that really, truly needs your kind of special tries to engage with you. They will pretend that they can always find another and will try to pay you as if you were an interchangeable unit. They won’t recognise your unique and vital contribution in any financially meaningful way and will insist that the genius of their organisation is actually their management skills and ability to find unicorns such as you. At remuneration negotiation time, they will dig their heels in and insist you need to conform to their existing pay and conditions structures, so that none of their other (less special) employees will feel put out or disadvantaged. They’ll expect you to be outstanding and special, while also playing as a non-descript team player, sharing in their mediocre rewards equally.
- You might actually be indispensible, but they’ll struggle on without you – You’ll eventually get sick and tired of being taken for granted and threaten to leave. You know that without you, exceptional products will never be built and opportunities for great wealth will pass the firm by, but they’ll let you go anyway, insisting, as an article of faith, that nobody is indispensible. It’s not true, of course. The more special you are, the more indispensible you really are, but the firm you leave will struggle on somehow and morph into something else. Heck, they might even find somebody else just as special to fill your shoes. They will never, ever concede that your absence has blasted a big hole in their company, even if it has.
- You will encounter many people that positively resent your specialness – If you show up somewhere, demonstrably doing things that others around you are incapable of doing, far from welcoming you with open arms, they will resent you. This is because they all think of themselves as special too, but you are walking, incontrovertible, unarguable, inescapable, living proof that they aren’t quite as special as they thought they were, evidenced by the fact that none of them can do what you can do. Once the resentment takes root, you’ll find yourself sniped at, undermined, back stabbed and having to endure general unpleasantness and hostility on a daily basis, with people briefing against you, while still attempting to produce your very best work. People who can’t tell whether you are special or not, due to their lack of expertise in your speciality, won’t provide you with much defence, either.
- They’ll still try to force fit you into ordinary roles – Having engaged you on the basis of your outstanding, special abilities, they’ll still try to leverage you into their pay grade structure and into a conventional job title, which models a very ordinary, outmoded and conventional view of the world. They won’t grant you a special title, such as “Minister of Special Corporate Magic”, or “Head of the Impossible” and you don’t want a silly, made-up title like that anyway, but you won’t be given the scope to grow (or even exist) in a role that makes use of all of your special skills and abilities. You’ll feel hemmed in from day one. The more you try to push against the boundaries of the box they assign you, the more friction and resistance you will encounter.
- It’s ok to be ordinary – Nobody says this, but it’s true. It’s ok to be ordinary. There is no requirement that you are special. You don’t have to be. You just have to be yourself, whoever you are. If that makes you special, then great, but it doesn’t have to.
- It’s not a race– Comparing your level of success with that of others is totally pointless and stupid. It can only serve to drive you crazy. You might think of others as special and that you are their equivalent, as special goes, but that you are not getting the same rewards they are. It doesn’t matter. Everybody’s story is a struggle of some sort and you can’t know all the gory details, so stop comparing their best with your worst. Nobody awards you a prize, when you die, to say you attained the most success.
- People do a lot of bigging up the best bits on social media– A particularly insidious place to try to compare your specialness and successes with those of others is on social media. It is a truism that people tend to massage their posts and profiles to present their life and life events in the most positive light possible. Image crafting is a commonplace. Social media seems to amplify the tendency. If you base your satisfaction and happiness on how other people are meeting your expectations, based on social media posts, then you really need to have your head read.
- Being special is not a route to security (financial or otherwise) – A very common misconception is that being special will insulate you from life’s uncertainties. If you think about it, that’s a nonsense. The market for expert treacle benders can evaporate in a moment (say, they discover that bent treacle is bad for you). Even if you are special, most firms make redundancies on a last in, first out basis anyway. They have to. You might not earn significantly more than anybody else, because you will have been graded and job titled within a conventional framework that takes little account of your specialness. As a freelancer, the work can simply dry up, for reasons you are unaware of. Nothing prevents your financial situation from changing overnight. The rich tend to spout this as one of their proofs of legitimacy of earnings. They assert that they’re special, so fully worthy and deserving of their wealth. The truth is that their wealth can be taken from them at any time, without warning (my great grandmother lost hers to the Bolshevik revolution nationalising the banks and confiscating all deposits).
- Being special doesn’t mean you get to bypass the sheer slog – Just because you are special doesn’t mean you can escape having to work hard. To actually become special (as opposed to feeling you are special, without having done anything to prove it), you might spend a lifetime honing your skills and improving yourself. Wisdom is acquired quite slowly. Just because you think you are special doesn’t mean you actually are. You might have some way to go, yet and it’s going to take a lot of work and dedication to get there.
- Being special doesn’t insulate against life’s misfortunes – Being special won’t prevent you from getting sick, or from being in an unfortunate and life-altering accident, or prevent your spouse from running off with somebody they feel is more special than you are. Being special isn’t protection against anything.
- Special people tend to undervalue everybody else, including special people – I don’t really understand why people believe that they, alone, are the special, chosen one, while everybody else is a child of a lesser God. They even do this, when in the presence of somebody truly special by any objective measure. It mystifies me, but they do it. It’s not based on anything remotely resembling reality, of course.
- You can’t prove how special you are, at the outset, so nobody will believe you – Let’s say that, as a young person, you somehow have answers that are both extremely valuable and turn out to be true, in hindsight, with the benefit of history. It doesn’t matter how you have the ability to accurately predict future trends and markets, but somehow, because of your special qualities, you actually do. Do you imagine a single person will actually believe that you have the answers? After all, they think of themselves as special, too. Why would your brand of special be any better than theirs, even if that proves to be the case later on? Without the proof, you’re just one more person that believes they are special. Maybe you are. It’s likely you’re not.
- Economics does not recognise your specialness, except as somebody else’s profits – I have never seen a pricing calculation, a tax form or a company balance sheet that accounts for the specialness of an individual. It’s lost in the numbers. The only effect of being special is that you may guide the company that employs you to spectacular sales and profits, but those profits are not distributed on the basis of who was special and who wasn’t; they’re distributed amongst the shareholders. Money talks and what it says is that having the money is what makes you special, nothing else. Money also lies. What actually makes money are the special talents and abilities of individuals. Ergo, the profits are being taken by the people that didn’t cause them to be made. Being special usually doesn’t automatically make you a major shareholder (though sometimes it can work out this way).
- Being special doesn’t give you the right to be an insufferable prima donna – Actually, nothing gives you that right.
- It’s easy to be so special you become irrelevant – There are people that have such a narrowly defined speciality and extended talents in that very narrow field to the point where nobody actually needs that exceptionally focussed skill set, at that depth. Being the only treacle bender in the world and knowing five thousand ways to bend treacle is irrelevant if there is no longer a market for bent treacle at all. Think of all those COBOL experts or painters that work exclusively in egg tempera.
- You may have to work with very ordinary people that think they’re special – When somebody that actually is gifted, talented and unique has to work with people that only think they are, all sorts of fireworks can ensue. There will never be a meeting of minds or an opportunity to fully express your special abilities, because it’s an unthinkable thought, in this scenario. No matter how special you really are, it will be denied as an utter impossibility and all work will proceed from that axiomatic assumption. There are no words for how frustrating this can be for somebody that actually has meaningful talents to contribute. It’s not a sustainable scenario, in fact.
- You may think you’re very special, but are actually quite ordinary, in truth – One of humanity’s many foibles is that we tend to overestimate our competence, when incompetent and underestimate it, when fully competent. Consequently, a great many people that were told they are special, who fully believe themselves to be special, will, in fact, be rather ordinary. That’s just a statistical fact. If you haven’t done all the hard work and experienced the failures along the way, the chances are good that you’re not quite as special as you think you are. On the other hand, if you feel defeated and deflated, having tried many times and failed just as many, you might be more special than you imagine.
- Results count most – The only assertion of specialness that has any currency is one that can show results. If your special talent allows you to do things others cannot do, then do them and use what you have done to prove your assertion. Of course, there are many reasons why what you have done could be lost to history, attributed to other people or not available to be used as proof, but results are important, all the same. It is paramount to use your special talents so that you can offer the results as evidence of your special talents. I know this is a chicken and egg situation and you sometimes need people to believe in you, before you can produce the results, but it’s easier the other way round. People tend to believe in you more readily if you can demonstrate the value of your special talents in some tangible form.
- It is better to be effective than special – What matters more than being able to prove how special you are, or feeling that you are special, based on the actuality of your special talents and abilities, is being able to change things for the better. It is far better to be effective than to assert, prove and justify how special you are. The effectiveness of your talents will speak for themselves, without your ego being involved. The results you produce are your true calling card. Better to do than to be. Dooby-Dooby-Do-Bee.
It’s still good to strive to be irreplaceable, dependable, special, unique and a one of a kind, though. Competence is a nice feeling. It’s far better than undervaluing your own achievements and talents. If you do, then so will everybody else.
Be special, if you can, but don’t assume you are, just because everybody told you that you were.