Friday, March 23, 2012

The Shallow and Self-Defeating Illusion of Competition

Explaining how to break into TV comedy writing, one of Craig Kilborn's writers sums up the situation:
There aren't many jobs. Less than 100 total talk show jobs, maybe another 50 asundry game show jobs.

And there are lots of people trying to get those jobs. We are a nation of 250 million or so. Of whom probably about 25 million think they can be comedy writers. Of whom maybe about 25,000 actually pursue a comedy writing career. Of whom probably 15,000 or so do some standup and even move to LA or New York.
 That's the layout of the comedy talk show occupation. You have a huge morass of people trying to get a few comedy writer jobs.

Is there any hope, you ask? From the scenario I've set so far, you wouldn't think so. But there is a rub, and here it is:

Most of the people applying for these very few jobs... suck.

It's refreshing to see this truth spoken publicly. And it's true for more than comedy writing. There's a natural tendency to confuse massive competition with tough competition. We all know how enormous the competition is for actors. Well, is every actor you see on tv and in movies, like, awesome? It's hard to get a book published. Is every book brilliant?

But much more importantly, consider the larger view. Are any of these people truly competing with each other? Is the primary goal to beat out other authors? Or to write something great? The former will likely lead to a crappy book, published or not, and quality oughtn't be a side effect! (To paraphrase one of my heroes, Banksy: doing creative work in order to get famous is like eating a great dinner in order to take a shit.)

As a high school senior, I auditioned for a top conservatory. The morning of the big day, I was informed that over one hundred trombone students would be vying for three spots, and this statistic completely psyched me out. I blew the audition. But I later came to know the three kids who got in. Two were so-so players, and one was "good", but no genius. How did they get in? Well, all the others sucked!

If I had simply played my best, instead of tensing into "competition" mode, I'd have easily passed. When I realized what had happened, the world shifted its magnetic poles. I saw that competition is a silly, abstract, mental notion with no productive bearing on anything. The key is to do your best, and let the chips fall (and, as a corollary: work your ass off to be so unbelievably good that anyone who fails to appreciate you must be a total chump (and, critically, recognize that there'll always be chumps!).

After that realization, I have not, in my mind, ever again competed with another human being. Even in ping pong or tennis, I prefer to bat the ball around, trying to make great shots, and to inspire the other player to do likewise. I'll only play an actual game if absolutely forced to.

For one thing, I don't get satisfaction from seeing others lose. For another, I've observed that competition's addictive. Victory brings scant satisfaction, and the skeevy neediness immediately reappears. I'm not a hamster, and I don't engage in Skinneresque reward systems. Life's deeper than a mere video game.

If I could travel back in time to advise my high school self, I'd say: don't get psyched out. Don't compete. Just do everything you do with love and caring generosity and ingenuity, and let the chips fall where they will. And if someone fails to notice, or care, or reward you....fuck 'em!

See also this.


Kirk said...


Jim Leff said...

Thanks! Now, let's see any other writer try to match that!


Lady Elixa said...

Are you a parent? I ask as i did use the Skinner technique. But only for 3 weeks for one behavior with my children and it does work to change negative behaviors. But your thoughts on competion are so appreciated and should be written into a parenting curriculum.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Lady Elixa.

The downside of my non-competition attitude is that I've lost all ambition for victory. I could spend my next 20 years fighting mightily to see my vision this incorporated into official curricula and policies, but I'd do that at the cost of all the other things I like to do. If I had only one idea in my life, maybe that'd make sense. But I like hatching and explaining ideas way more than trying to persuade people to accept them. I'm a creative, not a salesman.

That's also why I'm writing here on a sleepy blog, rather than in shiny magazines or higher profile outlets (where, before Chowhound, I was starting to build a reputation). Here, I can focus my effort on thinking and writing, rather than the immense (and highly degrading) task of getting stuff seen (petitioning haughty gatekeepers, enduring snark, surviving insensitive editing, etc). I'm a stuff-doer., not a stuff-pusher.

Ideally, someone out there would seize upon my better ideas, but that's not the way of the world. Here on Earth, vast seas of great ideas and insights are hatched but never seized upon. You can be depressed by this, or, like me, be heartened to know that lots of goodness and cleverness is out there. Most of us have a sense that cream rises, but it really doesn't. But that means that the cream of human creativity is far bigger and better than what we see when we casually look around us. What we see around us are the fruits of marketing labors, not creative labors.

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