I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of community, and particularly about how you define and choose your personal communities. Because the people you surround yourself with – their values, achievements, and interests – are the people who will define, inspire, and constrain your own expectations and behavior. Choosing the right community will free you to fly. Choosing the wrong community will be stifling at best, and potentially toxic.
For example, by virtually any standard, I’m pretty darn strong right now. (Last week I deadlifted 1,260 weasels (315 pounds). That’s a lot of weight.
However, Boss Barbell, where I lift, isn’t just any gym – it’s a powerlifting gym. In fact, it’s the biggest and best powerlifting gym in the Bay Area, and run by a renowned powerlifter. So if you’re a serious powerlifter, it’s where you go to work out.
As a result, “normal strength” in this gym is….a little skewed, shall we say? My heaviest lifts are more like warmup weights for many of the people in this gym. When I was doing my 315-pound lift, the guy next to me was doing nearly 500!
This creates a context in which 315 pounds looks, well, completely wimpy.
“But,” you say, “This is completely ludicrous! These people are elite powerlifters; they’ve been training much longer than you have; 90% of them are men who are two or three decades younger than you – of COURSE they’re going to be stronger! Don’t compare yourself to them!”
And that’s exactly what I mean by choosing your community wisely. Were I to take these elite, younger male lifters as my community – especially since some of them don’t consider me a good enough lifter to be taken seriously – it would be easy to get neurotic about my comparative lack of achievement. But I’m smart enough not to consider them my community, or to try joining their community. Doing that would park me as a permanent outsider and also at the bottom of the ladder. I made that mistake once, as a young woman in mathematics, and I’m not about to do that again.
This sense of dislocation and inadequacy is exactly what some of my students experience when they come into my classes and see beautiful work being posted by others who have been weaving intensively for a long time or who have art training (etc.). I regularly tell my students two things:
First, everyone is on their own creative journey, with their own creative goals. It really doesn’t matter where someone else is in their creative journey; what matters is your goals and how you are going to achieve them.
“What do you like in your work? What can you make better? How will you make it better? And how can I enjoy it more?” Those are the only questions that should concern you as an artist. “Am I a good artist?” is noticeably absent from the list.
Second, you have your own unique artistic voice, which is born out of your experience, skills, interests, and preferences. Which means that comparing your work to X’s to see whether X is a better artist than you are is just silly. You are different people and you speak with different voices. You can take inspirational elements from X’s work and incorporate them into your artistic vocabulary (though, please don’t imitate or copy!), but fundamentally wondering whether X’s work is better than yours is comparing apples to bicycles. It’s a great way to become neurotic without gaining much.
Having said that, of course it’s difficult to do your work entirely in a vacuum, and if you are the only person in the gym pulling 315 pounds when the ten other people there are pulling 400-500, it’s hard not to feel wimpy and out of place. (And a little frustrated at not being stronger…yet.)
There are two keys to persevering in these circumstances. The first is simply my first piece of advice to students, to remember that you are on your own journey, and that where they are in their journeys is irrelevant to your goals. The guy next to me may be looking to crack an 800-pound deadlift, but that’s his goal. Mine is to break the world record for 50-54 year old women in the 185-pound weight class, and that only requires a 370-pound squat, 415-pound deadlift, and something-or-other in bench press that I probably won’t achieve (bench press is my weakest lift right now).
Staying focused on your own goals lets you ignore the distracting shadows and focus on the target.
The second key, which I think is just as important, is to choose the right community, one that shares your values, where people welcome, appreciate, and encourage you, and you don’t feel out of place. It doesn’t have to be the dominant group in the community at large – but having even a few people who share your interests and values can easily make the difference between success and failure.
That’s true in anything – not just weightlifting or weaving – and is why, when attempting something difficult, I always start by reaching out to others for help. It’s not just about getting the help – though that’s important as well – but also about building a small community I can belong to.
As an entrepreneur, I always formed a small “mastermind” of a couple people who would meet regularly to talk about our businesses – a mini community where we could all support each other. As a weaver, I joined mailing lists and guilds and participated actively in both. And as a powerlifter, I’ve found a few people who lift like me and share my values as well. Not many, but enough. My community – at least for the moment – is more serious recreational lifters, women who lift, and elite lifters who encourage rather than exclude recreational lifters.
They say “It takes a village,” and I think that’s very true.
Ending with two videos that celebrate the power of community: my 315-pound deadlift from last week, and another video of me doing “pause deadlifts” – stopping and pausing halfway up. I was doing those with a 200-pound bar, and managed (at the end of the set) to pause for 10 seconds and still get it the rest of the way up!
(And not to worry – I’m careful about my form, and I have a top-notch coach who knows when to push me and when not to. I also wear a weightlifting belt, which helps protect my back.)
Happy lifting – in whatever you do! May you find happiness in a community of your own.