Agnes de Mille had just achieved the greatest success of her career, but right now the only thing she felt was confusion.
She was a dancer and a choreographer. Early in her career, de Mille had created the choreography for a ballet called Three Virgins and a Devil. She thought it was good work, but nobody made much of it.
A few years later, de Mille choreographed a ballet named Rodeo. Again, she thought her work was solid, but it resulted in little commercial fame.
Then, in 1943, de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, a musical show from Rodgers and Hammerstein that enjoyed nearly instant success.
In the coming years, Oklahoma! would run for an incredible 2,212 performances, both around the nation and abroad. In 1955, the film version won an Academy Award.
But the success of Oklahoma! confused her. She thought that her work on Oklahoma! was only average compared to some of her other creations.
She later said, “After the opening of Oklahoma!, I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha.”
Martha was Martha Graham, perhaps the most influential dance choreographer of the 20th century. (Although not as well-known by the general public, Graha
m has been compared to other creative geniuses like Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright.)
During their conversation, de Mille told Martha Graham about her frustration. “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.”
Graham responded by saying
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
The Uselessness of Judging Yourself
I am inspired to share this post with you because we can all relate to the “work train” of keeping going, staying the course and sometimes feeling like nobody’s watching, nobody cares for our work.
Like Agnes de Mille, I too have felt that my efforts were unseen, my blogs too long, too short, not enough, too much, why isn’t anyone giving me some real, valuable feedback?!
The thing is, we can be terrible judges of our own work.
We have expectations of how it should be received, how we’d like it to be received.
The beautiful part of Graham’s response is that, not only does she clarify that we are bad judges of our work but that, indeed, it is not our job to judge our work at all!
What is our responsibility is to DO THE WORK and create. Our job is to show up, put out the best work that we have, honor our commitments, be the true protectors of our word and simply focus on creating great work.
As the Creative Leader of your life, you will be invited (and sometimes forced) to show up when you don’t want to.
And if you’re part of a tribe, of a community, of a group, oftentimes, it doesn’t really matter what you want. The work is to always bring your best to any environment, tribe, group and/or circle, even when you don’t feel your best.
We can all empathize with not feeling our best.
This is why we practice fortification with our tribes. We take a stand for one another, we figure it out, we enter into a new agreement of what it really means to be present for another.
In every area of our lives, there will always be times when we judge ourselves too harshly. But here’s the silver lining: if you focus on always doing your best, you will be able to be more generous towards yourself and towards others. Don’t let your self-judgment, your FOMO, diverge your path.
Do the work, don’t judge it. Fall in love with the process and don’t grade the outcome. Just keep putting your very best foot forward and build your own Stairway To Heaven.