I recently read an article by James Clear where he referenced a statement often heard in grade school: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” He referred to the admonishment of not cheating. Clear pointed out the deeper message: “It doesn’t make a difference what the person next to you writes down for his answer. This is your race to run. It’s your assignment to complete. It’s your answer to create. How your paper compares to someone else’s is not the point. The point is to fill the paper with your work.” It’s the same as Hike Your Own Hike or Sticking to Your Path–your work, art, trip, journey, life is your own masterpiece, project, destination and adventure.
The rebels in the classroom (ahem, like myself) would, once admonished, give a side glance to the room to see who had their head up with their eyes off their paper, or squirmed in their seats or dozed off in the back. I was also gathering information on how confident everyone looked as they took the test or quiz. Scanning the room is nothing but a comparison, which is the thief of joy. Whether or not someone is succeeding on the test, or whether they do it quickly or confidently, has nothing to do with my work. My test. My art.
Here’s how to keep your eyes on your own paper:
As Clear wrote, “No matter what you spend your days doing, every morning you wake up and have a blank piece of paper to work with. You get to put your name at the top and fill it with your work.” The possibilities are endless. There is something magnificent about a clean slate. It’s like starting a new recipe and dicing the onions, sautéing them in the pan, moving forward with possibility. I can keep the onions raw, translucent or caramelized brown. It’s all up to me. I am the chef. I have the paint brush and I can make any stroke with any color I have. There is such power in possibility. And we get a new clean slate each morning and I have absolutely no idea what my neighbor is doing with their slate. It’s your clean slate. Use it for your art.
As Clear wrote while he reflected on his own writing: “I thought this was a good article. Why don’t people seem to enjoy it? Or, I’ll feel like I wrote something average only to see it become the most popular post of the month. Regardless of the outcome, I’ve realized one thing: we are often terrible judges of our own work.” I can relate. I wrote a post on my father’s time in Korea a few weeks back. I thought it was a great post and yet it had barely 100 views. I wrote a post on Earnest Shackleton’s leadership style back in 2014 and it’s been viewed over 6,000 times. There is no telling who will like it or who won’t. We are terrible judges of our own work. I can remember leaving tests, finals or quizzes from elementary school through grad school and I was rarely good at determining how well I did on the test. Stay away from judging yourself – odds are you really don’t know anyway.
In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, he says: “The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” I have to say that especially during test taking, I was without fail the first to leave the exam. If it was five students or two hundred, I was almost always the first to leave. I didn’t go back and double check or perhaps it’s my penchant for the $hitty first draft. I write, I create, I leave my art and ship. Put the pencil down and move on. Perfection is constricting. As Godin says, “Ship it.”
There is one you
Martha Graham was consoling Agnes de Mille about the randomness of success: “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.” There is only one of you. Don’t let your art be lost. Keep going. Produce no matter what product, what art, what music. You are here for your unique ability to produce your unique product.
There is joy in being present with the process. Don’t focus on the end product. Or the end product of your neighbor or the runner next to you or the hiker in the next tent. It’s the journey, not the destination. Make your own art, whatever that may be, and be there in the process with your eyes on your own paper.