Back in 2013 or so when I started my other site Ganriki, devoted to reviews and analyses of Japanese popular culture, one of the notes I made to myself that ended up in the site's explicatory note went something like this: Palettes, not hierarchies. This was something I had gleaned from another figure prominent in my Zen studies, John Cage. The point was not to worry about ranking things, least of all one's self, but to simply learn the lessons on display all around you, as offered by others. The "worst horse" is actually the best because he has the most to learn, the most opportunity for growth and application of the universe of lessons.
Said Cage, in Lecture On Something:
When Art comes from within, which is what it was for so long doing, it became a thing which seemed to elevate the man who made it above those who observed it or heard it, and the artist was considered a genius or given a rating: First, Second, No Good, until finally riding in a bus or subway: so proudly he signs his name like a manufacturer.
When I first encountered all this, I thought: How is it, then, that we are to improve if we are not worried about the quality of our work? This was answered, fairly swiftly, by another assertion: If you compare yourself to anything, compare yourself to your earlier self.
For a while, this seemed to do the trick, too. But at some point comparison to others always enters the picture. It's impossible not to wonder if this other person is Doing It Better, or whether you are Misguided, or whether all your work has been In Vain. Etc.
One of the ways we are forced most to deal with this issue is when the comparing is not done by ourselves against ourselves, but by other people, and specifically by other people who have leverage over our lives. People who cut our paychecks, or people poised to spread word about us, good or ill. Parents, friends, employers, cops, judges, whoever. For all practical purposes, they have a lot of say in who the best and worst horses are.
I had trouble reconciling all this myself for a long time, because it's completely true. We live in a world with others, and a fair number of those others have power over us that is deeply asymmetrical. All of our talk of self-improvement seems not very useful in that light. What good is it to work on ourselves when someone can come along and ruin it all with one bad word? Mere assertions that "other people don't define us" won't carry the needed water. Just stamping one's feet and insisting "I'm my own darn person!" isn't enough. What else could there be?
The closest I've come to an answer to all this is to say that if you don't work on yourself, if you lie down and let others walk all over you, it makes the job of others defining you against your will all the easier for them. Just because someone can define you on their own terms doesn't mean they'll succeed, and it doesn't mean their success is going to be anything more than transitory.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind