How Creative People Become Internet Trolls

This week a friend sent me this amazing collection of photos by Queenie Liao, placing her baby in a series of imaginative scenes like this one:

Photo by Queenie Liao, via www.boredpanda.org

Photo by Queenie Liao, via http://www.boredpanda.org

While I scrolled through the photos, each more creative, colorful, and delightful than the next, I was surprised to realize how quickly my thoughts turned vitriolic:

“Aren’t you supposed to nap when the baby naps?”

“How many of these were ruined with the baby waking up?”

“Well I’m glad you have all kinds of free time and colorful cloth but some of us have jobs.”

“If I had a professional camera I could do that, too. Except I don’t have a baby but…you know. I could use a teddy bear or a sleeping cat.”

These thoughts are rude and assuming. The strangest thing is, as I was thinking all these things, the photos were making me chuckle. I was smiling at the sheer brilliance of it, but inwardly thinking, “How dare you be so creative? How dare you do something I technically could have done?”

Therein lies the problem. I’m not bothered by someone’s success when they do something that I know I can’t or don’t want to do (like climb Mount Everest, paint the Mona Lisa, what have you). But when it’s something I technically could have done—I technically could have thought of that cool idea, I technically could have put those sheets in that position—I get jealous.  And that jealousy spits out of me, lashing at the creative person who has done nothing wrong.

Maybe this sounds crazy or maybe you can relate, but when I get that jealous feeling, suddenly I feel like this person has done the last creative thing and has left nothing for me. There is no space for this person’s awesome creative idea and MY future awesome creative ideas. They hogged it all and now I am left with nothing. It’s not a rational thought, of course. But my irrational jealous brain is terrified that I’ll never do something as cool as what I’m looking at right then. This is why I lash out: if I can take down this person’s creativity, if I can make it seem less great, maybe there is still space for me and my own work.

I imagine some parents looking at these photos feel less worried about their own creativity than their own abilities as parents (my sister recently shared an article about this exact thing, so I will defer to that). As for me, I’m sticking with the creative jealousy track in this post.

If I know internet commenters (and I think I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to say that I do), I was pretty confident that I’d see more than a few trolling comments to Queenie’s photos. I hoped I was wrong and everyone would say only nice things…but I was right. In fact the very first comment is, “mom obviously had nothing else to do LOL” (Don’t you just love passive-aggressive LOLs?) followed by a number of people saying the baby looks dead. Which…what? Have you ever seen a sleeping human being before?

Thankfully, most of the comments about these photos are positive and encouraging. And that is what Queenie deserves. But for perhaps the first time, I think I understand the trolls. I know why they said those things.

I should only be thinking how amazing these photos are and how great they will be to look back on when the baby is older. But instead I can’t help but think, “Well well, Ms. Moneybags. Looks like someone must have stayed up pretty late to make sure these photos looked perfect.” Not only is it mean-spirited, even if it’s in my own head, but it doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t make me more creative. And it also doesn’t give my own creativity any credit, because it’s totally fear-based. Other people can be creative and I can still make something awesome. There is room enough for all of us on this big creative earth.

Victory Over Self-Doubt (And Homecoming Opponents)

I often miss opportunities for one simple reason: I’m convinced someone else would do a better job.

For our high school Homecoming senior year, there was a t-shirt design contest. Inspiration hit me, and I drew something I really liked. Before I describe it, I’ll have to provide a little explanation: Our school was called York High School, so our mascot was the Duke. Get it? York Dukes? Duke of York? I never realized it was that weird until I graduated and got looks of disbelief. It’s true; our rich, white, suburban school’s mascot was an embodiment of the bourgeoisie: a man with a mustache, monocle, and top hat. He was the Planters peanut, if the Planters peanut had wished to become a real live boy.

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I never thought the Duke was a strange mascot, but I still mocked him simply because when you’re that age, everything having to do with high school is worth mocking. “God, our mascot is so dumb. Ugh, our parking lot is the worst. What are these? Brick walls? Pssh, lame.”

Except during Homecoming. During Homecoming, the Duke is a revered gentleman who demands respect—nay, fear. Our battle cry became “Fear The Monocle.” And we meant it.

That year, our football team played the Trojans for Homecoming. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….condoms. That was basically our retort against our opponent and our reasoning for why we’d destroy them. Because, you know. Condoms.

But when they announced a t-shirt design contest, I had a bolt-of-lighting inspiration moment. I drew the Duke (awesome mustache blowing in the wind) riding a Trojan horse to victory. In place of his usual top hat, I drew a football helmet. Then I added the top hat anyway, sexily perched atop the helmet.

I’m going to be honest with you: Michelangelo’s David would bow to this sketch, it was just that good. But my confidence level was low—again, for no other reason but that it was high school, and that’s just the way it was. So I drew this thing, this masterful thing, having no idea that it may or may not have been the next Mona Lisa (it was, trust me), and assuming that someone else had drawn something better.

As a teen, I never felt I was the best at anything, and had proof to back it up: other people got 1st place at the art fair, got better grades on the test, got the starring role in the school play. I was runner up. B+. Townsperson #2.

Now as an adult, I look back at this time in my life and say, “I liked drawing, I got good grades, and I had a blast acting in my spare time. And I was good at all of it! Why didn’t I just let myself enjoy these things?” But in high school, you are acutely aware of the people who are better than you. Maybe because adults tell you so often exactly who is better. They give out trophies and announce top grades. It’s all meant to encourage everyone, I suppose, to reach for the trophies and the top grades. But for me, it was just a way to say, “Here’s another thing you’re not the best at, Emily. Maybe try rugby.”

So my Duke picture stayed in a folder, never submitted. There are a lot of great artists at our school, I thought. I’ve met them. And they’ve already created something better. By the time I submit mine, the school will have framed something else and sent it to the Louvre.

When they revealed the winning picture, my jaw fell to the floor. That won? That?! They had chosen some art student’s half-hearted doodle (I know it was half-hearted because I was in an art class with the winner and I knew what he was capable of), which didn’t even look like anything, let alone a Duke riding a Trojan horse to victory.  I wondered if anyone had submitted a drawing besides this one. And if those other drawings had been rejected, I wondered what they had looked like. Dancing condoms? Likely.

I have other examples from this time in my life when I chose to go for it, when I didn’t let my doubt get in the way of my accomplishments. When I said, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and then I did something amazing. But I still look back on this one time when I assumed I didn’t deserve praise (or certainly that someone else deserved it more) and I wish I could go back and reassure myself. I wish I could be my own cheerleader.

I never showed the picture to anyone. I know this because anyone with a soul would have encouraged me to submit it, and this story would have a different ending. Instead, that picture is lost forever. I think I actually threw it away.

So be your own cheerleader. Put yourself out there. When you hear your doubtful brain saying you aren’t good enough, tell your brain to suck it, and do it anyway. You never know—you might be a lot better than you think you are.

When you’re halfway to an interview and start thinking, “This is silly, I’ll just go home.” Tell your brain to shush. When you’re waiting to audition and look at everyone you think will get the gig instead, tell your brain to zzzzip it. When you’re thinking about buying blue eye shadow just to try it even though every magazine tells you that you’d look better in peach, tell your brain to hush it.

Tell yourself you can do it, and then freaking do it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it better. Do it your way, and kill it.