This is the third of four loosely related posts that can be read in sequence or separately. The first two were about accepting my relationship with the world and the validity of my own experiences. This post is about comparing ourselves to other people, and embracing our art.
Twitter did its usual job of trying to get me excited about a pointless notification. Like always, and especially since it has resorted to notifying me of tweets it randomly guesses I might like, it had a hard time succeeding.
Nevertheless, I submitted to the weary routine of scanning the notifications tab - and for once it yielded something genuinely heartwarming.
Toward the end of 2011 I spent a day in Beverley, North Yorkshire, including visiting the town’s art gallery. In behaviour that the 2018 version of me doesn’t recognise, I tweeted about a couple of paintings and even added a hashtag. I must have been very keen for attention(!).
Seven years later, the curator of Beverley art gallery searched for that hashtag to see how much it is used. She found and liked my tweets, I sent a message thanking her for reminding me of something I’d forgotten about, and we exchanged a few pleasantries.
In the murky and often depressing online realm, it was a light-filled reminder that sometimes the internet is actually capable of creating a social link - however fleeting - between people who wouldn’t otherwise meet.
An art connoisseur I am not. The extent of my tweeted commentary was to marvel at the impressive size of a painting of some cows.
Which makes my reaction to a few moments of a recent television programme all the more unusual. I don’t know what the programme was; it might have been on BBC2. A woman was getting ready to unveil a painting hidden under a cloth. She was an art restorer, returning the painting to the family who had neglected it - including allowing it to be pierced by an errant dart that landed a long way from treble-20.
The before and after was astonishing. What the painting depicted I can’t remember, because I was too busy marvelling at her work and thinking:
‘Why can’t I do that?’
Why can’t I do that?
Maybe because I’m not interested in fine art and haven’t held a paintbrush since finishing a mediocre watercolour of an Italian villa for a school art exam when I was 14?
Why do I do this to myself?
Why do we all do it, comparing ourselves to other people?
Consistently feeding our insecurities by judging ourselves against anybody we perceive to be something we’re not?
It’s not always talent and creativity, or skills that have been thousands of hours in the making. Reading about a successful creative who makes her own bread and her own butter, I felt utterly inadequate for still enjoying Clover on supermarket bread from time to time.
In a podcast interview, the comedian James Acaster described feeling guilty when he found out another comedian gets up at 5am every day. He’s not even a particular fan of that other comedian, it was simply the act of comparing himself to a peer.
Regardless of status and success (however you define those things), the grass always looks greener. Thinking like that is a waste of time and mental energy - but we do it anyway.
Deleting the Facebook app from my phone a few months ago starved me of one dopamine hit that comes from compulsively checking social media. I’m much the happier for it, but haven’t made a similar step with Twitter or Instagram.
I’d like to give up Twitter altogether, but episodes like connecting with a gallery curator stop me from doing so. Plus, I actually find Twitter … useful. Imagine!
It has a community of architects, building design professionals, consultants and writers, all of whom specialise in low energy construction and sustainable building practices. That’s the kind of thing I write about for a living, and I’ve lost count of the number of times their chat and debate has given me an insight that benefited my work.
Through their practical experiences and research-based observations, they keep me up to date on current thinking, demonstrate good practice, and constantly remind me of why better building quality is something I’m passionate about. They design, deliver, and write about high quality buildings that make a difference to everyday lives and our planet.
I admire their values, because they are people who practice what they preach. Much as I aspire to similar values, my practice - the technical writing I do for construction industry clients - is much narrower in scope than their expertise and I can only ride on their coat tails.
Twitter is my window to the community’s world. I look up to them but also feel constantly inadequate; unworthy of going to the front door, knocking, and asking if I can come in to make a connection.
It’s a few weeks since Christmas 2018, and no festive television viewing is complete without the Father Ted Christmas special. This quote is from that episode:
Ah great, Mass! Father Crosby is doing the Mass. I’m a huge fan of his. He gives good Mass. He really knows how to work the altar. Look at that chalice work … effortless!
The words are spoken by an imposter who has stolen a priest’s identity. His excitement at watching Mass is suspicious - and therefore funny - because one of the conceits of the show is that most of the characters are priests but you rarely see them doing anything religious.
The moment is also funny because the idea of appreciating ‘effortless chalice work’ feels absurd. Ignore the religious aspect of the set up and think of it simply as a mundane task that’s part of somebody’s job. It would be like praising an office worker for their ‘expressive spreadsheet filling’ or a car mechanic for their ‘exquisite bolt tightening’.
Part of the work I do for different clients is producing heat loss calculations for buildings. They are a tiny, tiny part of the vast quantity of information produced in the building design and construction process, but they’re important. They show how a wall or floor or roof has been designed, or how it should be put together.
If what’s in the calculation isn’t replicated in the actual building, the building may not comply with regulations.
After seven years of producing heat loss calculations, I’m fortunate to have a better-than-average understanding of how such calculations should be done and what makes one better than another. And once I was done wondering why I wasn’t an expert art restorer, I realised something else.
Why shouldn’t I embrace heat loss calculations as my ‘art’?
At first, it might sound as ridiculous as ‘effortless chalice work’ - but why shouldn’t I have a signature flourish, something that raises the quality of a calculation done by me over one prepared by somebody else?
For now, at least, this is what I have to offer the construction community. I can keep doing these calculations to the best of my ability, refusing to relax my work ethic and advocating a better quality of communication in their otherwise standardised presentation, to help the other professionals - the ones I look up to so much - who read and use them.
We should all be more proud of our art, whatever form it takes. It can be traditional or otherwise, but if we pour ourselves into what we do, if we look at the result and say, “That’s mine, and it benefits other people”, then we should stop wishing we can be as good as other people at what they do, and start shouting about our own abilities from the (well designed, thermally efficient) rooftops.