I listened to a podcast with Yo-Yo Ma, and he said something that resonated: When he plays concerts, he considers the audience his guests — and his job is to be a host. But here’s the good part:
He isn’t there to prove something. He’s there to share something.
I spend a lot of time trying to prove myself. Often in social situations, I find myself thinking about how to show how great I am — because I want other people to think I am a decent person. But the best conversations, the ones where I come away feeling wonderful, are the ones where we mutually share ideas and stories.
In the last few months, I’ve grown to dislike a lot of things on the internet. Things like Twitter and Facebook use the word “share” to describe the act of posting something for others to see. But sharing is most often about wanting to build up one’s self, rather than wanting to bring someone else into a world that is delightful or heartbreaking or fascinating.
So while avoiding the internet, I’ve been writing a book. But I often asked myself why I was doing this. Often the answer was that I wanted to be someone who wrote a book. It was a bad answer. What makes a wonderful author is the stories she shares, not the words she amasses.
The combination of the aforementioned things — 1) watching the world show off how great they are, and 2) my inability to write a halfway decent book — has made me wonder whether I am capable of such things. Maybe I lost it.
But one of my favorite professors, Red Burns, once said, “Creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity.” It implies that every human being has the capability to communicate in ways that are uniquely and delightfully them — and we can't help but use it. This means, no matter your intelligence or experience, you can create beautiful things.
Now, it’s possible I subscribe to this “everyone can do it” philosophy because I’ve hit enough barriers to know that I am not supremely talented in any way. Sure, I think I’m good at certain things, but I’m often astonished and jealous of the talent others have to work with. So maybe it’s my way of coping — my way of keeping the dream alive.
But Red also believed that you shouldn’t use creativity to build up yourself or to dabble in your own brain. She believed it was all a means to an end: improving people’s lives. To share.
I used to question this notion. After all there is the stereotype of the brilliant artist who is lost in his own mind. But Yo-Yo Ma — a man who has reached the peak of his profession and is nothing short of a brilliant artist — said that he’s not out there to prove that he’s the best. Rather, he’s there to share. And that is just wonderful. He’s seen over the mountain, and he says there is no merit to doing things just to show how good you are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of regret. When people turn 50, or 60, or on their deathbed, what do they regret? I always read these stories on top five things people regret on their death bed, and I’m always amazed with is how many of them have to do with sharing — sharing feelings, sharing friendships, sharing honestly.
(An aside: I often think these are regrets I could have in life. But many of these are remedied by spending time to write — working less, expressing how I feel, spending time doing what I want, letting myself be happier. And when I write, friends tend to reach out to me, too.)
At age 27, I often think about what my life would be like if I’d made other decisions. I struggle with the success of others around me, as they earn job titles and raises and awards that sound a hell of a lot better than mine. I struggle with seeing others accomplish things and experience things that I always wanted to do. It’s not so much regret, because I still think everything could work itself out, but it’s the idea that I could one day regret it. It’s the idea that I’ll always want to be proving myself because I never accomplished what I wanted to — I never turned into the person I wanted to.
But Yo-Yo Ma said this wonderful thing about how he started playing the cello. He said, as a kid, he wanted to play a big instrument — an oversized bass — but his parents would only get him the next biggest: the cello. “I’m a firm believer of accidental meetings between objects, people, circumstances. Because so much of my life seems to have been orchestrated in that way.”
The way I see it (or am trying to see it), you don’t need to play the oversized bass to be a wonderful person — an accomplished person who creates meaningful things. Rather, you merely have to be open to serendipity. And when the world turns your way, you’ll have the chance show how great you are — but the better alternative will always be to use that energy to show others how great they are.
One of my favorite videos in the world is Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. In it, Yo-Yo Ma plays a song for Mr. Rogers — and Mr. Rogers says, “Do you know what a present that is when you play something for someone? It’s just like giving them a present!”