Soul Murdering Question # 1: Am I Any Good?


Before I get to the subject at hand, I’d like to send a shout out to all of those who read “One Minute Film School” and were moved to follow my little page because of it. The flood of comments it received was amazing, and the degree to which that post seems to have resonated with readers was as startling for me as it was  gratifying. All of this, as you can probably imagine, means a lot.

Thank you all.

*   *   *

There was one comment in particular, from fellow blogger Nichole Eck, which has really stuck with me. So much so that I’ve decided to devote this post to the question she posits. Her comment starts out innocuously enough:

I have the same inability to kill people’s dreams, no matter how unrealistic or misguided! Even if I sometimes think that the sooner they get over their dreams and move on, the better (lest they end up like Willy Loman). I especially liked this observation of yours: “If you’re any good, someone will notice, believe me. If you’re not, please stop.”

It’s this next part that haunts me:

Do you know of any guidelines that can help people realize if they’re not “any good” at something? Is it just the test of time? (i.e. It’s been three years, and no one’s noticed; it must be time to stop.”)

Now, I don’t know whether Nichole’s final line is merely a hypothetical example, or something more. But I can’t help wondering if she’s referring to herself here, that she’s at a crossroads, unsure of which blinker to switch on. For this reason, and because I believe her question is as central to the artistic pursuit as it is universal, I can’t in good conscience write another post without at least addressing it. Especially since I think I may have some answers.

*   *   *

“How will I know?” – Whitney Houston


So, how will you know? The simple answer is, you won’t. The slightly more complicated answer is, you just will. But the only useful answer is, it doesn’t matter.

Let me unpack these for you.

#1) You won’t. Why? Because you can’t. The quality you seek to identify in yourself is relative. It’s subjective. And it’s a moving target. Remember how you can’t know an electron’s position AND velocity at the same time? It’s like that. It’s also a lot like another potentially soul crushing question, this one asked by far too many women throughout their lives: Am I pretty? Like talent, “prettiness” is something you can spot and even, horribly, quantify in someone else. But, not in yourself. Ever. You’re too close. You’ve got too much at stake. Objectivity flies out the window.

This is why we turn to outside indicators, usually in the form of human beings, for answers. In theory this can be of some help. If a girl is constantly being hit on by strangers and told that she’s amazing, for instance, she can be fairly sure where she stands on the ‘attractiveness’ scale. In much the same way, an artist who is praised, critically acclaimed and, well, hit on and told that they’re amazing can be fairly sure where they stand on the ‘any good’ scale. But there are problems with this ‘external indicator’ approach which have probably already occurred to you.

First of all, very few people are enough of a knockout or a genius to generate such a powerful response to their looks or their talent so, statistically speaking, you’re probably not one of them. Don’t worry, neither am I. Also, you can never be sure what’s motivating a human to do or say anything, and they’re as likely as not to change their minds up or down in ways you can never predict. And we all know there will never be a true consensus. Some people hate Shakespeare. Even the Dalai Lama has enemies.

Consider people who are famous for being famous. It probably feels for those basking inside that fame bubble that there can be no question about their looks and/or talent. They’re famous! And they’re almost certainly wrong. Compare that situation to Van Gogh’s, who was tremendously undervalued as an artist in his own time. In short, trying to gauge something by another’s opinion, no matter how tempting, is as futile as trying to get a handle on that electron. You’ll simply never know.

#2) You just will. Well, thats interesting. Seems like I’m completely contradicting everything I just said, doesn’t it? Not exactly. I’m just approaching the question from another angle, in another way. What would you say if a close friend asked you “How do I know if I’m really in love?” I’ll tell you what I’d say. “You’ll just know. If you’re not sure, if you even have to ask the question, you’re not”. Harsh, isn’t it? But I think it’s the truth. You’re not stupid. Trust your gut.

The problem with this approach, as easy as it may sound (it’s not) is that for your answer to have any validity, you have to apply some rigorous introspection, soul searching and, worst of all, you have to be completely honest with yourself. Yikes. It takes courage to get under your own hood and really look around, and it takes even more to be willing to accept what you find.

Some people are in love with the idea of being in love. Similarly, a lot of artists are in love with the idea of being an artist. But as philosopher and Starship Captain Jean-Luc Picard once observed, “Wishing for a thing does not make it so”.

35781610Look, maybe your desire for talent outstrips the degree to which you actually have it. There’s no shame in that. But someone in love with love who spends their life with the wrong person is wasting much. Spending your life pursuing something you blindly hope you’re good at is equally tragic. And there’s probably something you’d be far better off pursuing, something you really do have a talent for.

#3) It doesn’t matter. I can almost hear how pissed off you are at me right now. If it doesn’t matter, why even bother talking about it? Because you’re going to think about it anyway, that’s why. So I thought we could explore some ways to think about it together. But, ultimately, it just doesn’t matter. This is good news!

tumblr_m4pbbjvRt71rvzvq4o1_500What I’m really saying here isn’t just that the question is meaningless, which it is, I’m saying that even if an omniscient deity or a post-singularity supercomputer could tell you definitively if you were any good or not, it wouldn’t make much difference. Why? Because you are not your art.

Your art is your art. It is outside of you. You create it, and either it is valuable and interesting or it isn’t, but whether you’re ‘any good’, especially at this one moment of all possible future moments, is not what matters. Who cares whether you’re a good car maker, that’s just ego. Do you build good cars? You make your art, your art doesn’t make you. Remember that. And the most important word in that truism isn’t ‘you’, it isn’t even ‘art’. It’s ‘make’.

“Is the art that I make any good?” Now there’s a question.

And I’ll try to answer it in my next post.


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11 thoughts on “Soul Murdering Question # 1: Am I Any Good?

  1. Such a good, difficult, important question. I should repeat the word “Difficult” – it deserves to stand on its own.

    It took me many years to answer this question myself. It happens that I used numbers 1, 2 and 3 to find my answer. As difficult as it was, I had to.

    It’s also important to point out that throughout my career I’ve come to cross roads and needed to answer the question again. I feel my self approaching one now… And there is fear. I know deep down that this is good, that I’m growing, and that my life/I will be better for it.

  2. Tough, tough question. I agree with all three points here.
    Ultimately, What are we hoping to achieve by creating? For me, when I think something is “good” I kick back, breathe and say “well done”. That lasts for about 30 seconds before I starting worrying about what’s next and if that will be any good. Art can be good without the artist being recognized.

    If the only goal is being seen, then I would submit there is a larger discussion to be had.

    “Is the art I make any good?” Sure, we’d all love to be worshiped for our genius, but most of us aren’t. I do what I do because I feel I have to. I want to and most importantly, I enjoy it. I’m also dumb enough to think I have something to say and smart enough to realize what I have to say may not resonate with a lot of people.

    “Good”, who defines good? It’s all so terribly subjective.

    Something tells me the doubt about being any good never really goes away no matter the level of success attained (however you define success). And the doubts you have probably makes you a better critic about what you yourself consider “good” enough to be seen.

    • Exactly. Exactly so. This is my response to every point you just made. in fact I could use this as a literary trailer for my next post. It is, as you say, “so terribly subjective”. Makes me consider if there was any point in my saying in One Minute Film School that If you’re not any good, please stop. I was speaking in a particular context, though. Film, which is a technical and collaborative endeavor (as opposed to, say, painting, which is basically solitary and more free form). If you’re not any good as a film maker, then we all suffer as actors and crew to when we band together tohelp you with your next project (usually for free because you’re simply not good enough to get any funding). These are the people I wish would wake up and please stop, because working with them, seeing what they’ve squandered all the hard work and expertise they had at their disposal and, worst of all, observing over time that they haven’t, and aren’t about to, learn a thing is incredibly frustrating.

      • Totally agree. Film is so collaborative and it’s damaging and disheartening to see talented folks working with or for an untalented leader. For me, it ends up showing in the work and then, as you say, everyone truly suffers. Those people need to go away and learn their craft and then maybe, MAYBE, try again. One of the sheer joys about living in the era we are in is that if you want to create you can.

        Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should!

        Perhaps this is naive and/or arrogant, but I think if you have to ask if it’s any good, you know the answer. When you are creating, you know.

        But yea, collaborative arts like film are infinitely more challenging. Somewhere there is a story of Clint Eastwood directing Matt Damon. My understanding is that Eastwood generally does no rehearsals and shoots only three takes. When he was directing Matt Damon, he had asked Eastwood if they could shoot one or two more takes so he could try some different things. Clint Eastwood’s reply was to the effect of “Why? Why do you want to waste my time and the crews time? I got what I wanted, so we’re moving on.” No, not everyone is Clint Eastwood, or Matt Damon, but the point? You know when it’s good.

      • Once again, couldn’t agree more. I was afraid I was going to catch a bucket load of flack on this one, but so far, I’m golden. I’d like to respond more fully to your comments, but discretion is the greater part of valor and I just came back from a birthday soirée where I had far too much really good wine to feel confident in saying any more.

  3. John V says:

    There’s something that I find particularly objectionable about the phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. As the author mentioned, the very idea of “good” is subjective. But I don’t think that’s the question being answered here. The question is, instead, “am I any good?” Emphasis on I. The author posits three possible answers to this question – you won’t, you just will, and it doesn’t matter. I submit a fourth answer – YES. Emphatically. Unequivocally. Goodness is human nature. We are all born good, with a desire to create, contribute, and achieve. It’s the process and grind of living, the slings and arrows from a million unkind words and deeds, that empties the goodness within us.

    • I’m afraid you might’ve missed my point here, John. The post was not directed at hobbyists, dabblers or small children who should, absolutely, do what the want. It was directed at people who take what they’re doing seriously, and it assumes that as such the question should be approached seriously. Saying that it’s all good and everybody’s beautiful are platitudes at best and belong in a different conversation. I just don’t feel they’re particularly helpful in this one. In any case, I think that if you read my third answer again you’ll realize that rather than emphasizing the ‘I’, as you said, I’m actually de-emphasizing it. I took it right out of the conversation.

      Finally, I wish you were right that we are all born good. But as the great sage Paul McCartney so astutely pointed out, “There is good and bad in everyone”.

      • John V says:

        You don’t find my points to be particularly helpful or on point. That’s the final word on the subject, I suppose.

  4. Hi, thanks for writing this post. It may not strike a chord with everyone but it has made me think. I’m employed in an industry where I have hoped to do good things, and I am (apparently) well-liked by my peers, but lack the killer instinct required to be hugely successful. I have a period of soul searching ahead of me, and will face my own crossroads in due course. Thanks again. Mike.

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