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Alma Cook draws from Atlas Shrugged, writing about comparing yourself to others

Anyone who’s come in contact with me in the last month knows that I’ve been working my way through the 63-hour audiobook that is Atlas Shrugged (three hours of which are taken up by one famously long monologue).

A lot could be said about the book and about its author Ayn Rand. I won’t get into the thick of Rand’s claims about politics, business, philosophy, or sexuality, but I did find one quote from the book that was especially cutting and relevant to artists, especially if you have a habit of comparing yourself to others. The quote speaks to what’s really going on when we look enviously at other people’s abilities or even try to undermine their success.

“Did it ever occur to you, Miss Taggart,” said Galt, in the casual tone of an abstract discussion, but as if he had known her thoughts, “that there is no conflict of interests among men, neither in business nor in trade nor in their most personal desires—if they omit the irrational from their view of the possible and destruction from their view of the practical? There is no conflict, and no call for sacrifice, and no man is a threat to the aims of another—if men understand that reality is an absolute not to be faked, that lies do not work, that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given, that the destruction of a value which is, will not bring value to that which isn’t.

The businessman who wishes to gain a market by throttling a superior competitor, the worker who wants a share of his employer’s wealth, the artist who envies a rival’s higher talent—they’re all wishing facts out of existence, and destruction is the only means of their wish. If they pursue it, they will not achieve a market, a fortune or an immortal fame—they will merely destroy production, employment and art. A wish for the irrational is not to be achieved, whether the sacrificial victims are willing or not. But men will not cease to desire the impossible and will not lose their longing to destroy—so long as self-destruction and self-sacrifice are preached to them as the practical means of achieving the happiness of the recipients.”

The questions it left me with were these: Do you think you are the absolute best singer or speaker in the world? If not, do you really want to live in a world where you—at your current skill level—are the best there is? Wouldn’t that, in some ways, be an insult to the art itself because you’re depriving it of true excellence?

Rather than grumbling about how other people get more attention than you or jealously flipping through the content of talented YouTube singers to look for their flaws, what if we simply clapped for excellence when we saw it, appreciated those who were legitimately better than us, and continued to put in our hours until we became the best artists we could be?

Today, find someone who is good at what they do—better than you, even—and practice this principle of self-surrender by commenting and sharing their content.

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