The other day I was on the phone to my older brother, complaining about a recent incident.
I was on the way back from London when my credit card got stolen out of my pocket, then I had to pay a £30 surcharge because my ticket was wrong. Except I couldn't because I never carry cash, so the guards kicked me off the train, shouted at me for about 20 minutes on the platform, and now I am being charged £300. I was somewhat pissed off. I could have flown to America and spent a night in the Ritz for that amount.
My brother's response was this: it wasn't personal. That rail line is losing a lot of money at the moment. The guard had to fine you, his job is boring and stressful. He's probably scared he'll lose it and won't be able to support his kids.
A couple of years ago when I was annoyed about a similar situation he sent me an email which said something along the lines of: there is no system against you. There are just tired, stressed people trying to get through the day so they can go home and watch Netflix.
My brother has taught me a substantial amount of what I know about life, and that might be one of the most significant lessons. It is also a hard one to accept. The idea that there is no 'system' is actually somehow terrifying, in the same way that most people find the prospect of there being no life after death horrendous. It exemplifies the thing we all hate - indifference.
A lot of people (myself included) slip into the habit of using 'the system' as an excuse. It lets us shirk responsibility. I gained weight because the food companies put something in my cereal. I failed that exam because they don't want women becoming scientists. My website got 0 views because everyone on the internet has signed an agreement not to read it. That election was rigged so my vote didn't count.
There is hatred. There is oppression. There is inequality. There are cognitive biases. But a grand system, some big lie? Isn't that too good to be true?
Somehow that idea is a lot less disconcerting than the thought that the world is truly indifferent. The concept of there being nothing but stressed out people shuffling around is uncomfortable.
I can always shirk responsibility. I can say: it's because I'm female. It's because I'm part Jewish. It's because I'm short. It's because I have tattoos. It's because I'm not pretty, etc etc. Those things almost certainly do have a negative impact on my life. At the same time, they have their advantages. Think of the hitchhiker in On the Road who wanders around America yelling 'feed me, I'm Jewish.'
A secondary school teacher once told me I would never get a job if I didn't learn to fit in and 'look normal.' My response was that I would never want to work for anyone who prioritized superficial factors over actual skills and qualifications. Whenever I feel like something surface is hindering me, I remember that I would rather not have anything to do with anyone who has that attitude. It is the ideal litmus test.
The same goes for creative work. There is no system which holds back talented people from achieving recognition.
The nature of the world is that the cream rises to the top 99.9% of the time. Admittedly, it sometimes takes a while. Portrait of a Man was not published until 50 years after George Perec's death. The literary world went crazy over it. Van Gogh received no recognition during his lifetime. Yet he is now one of the best-known artists. Paolo Uccello was mocked throughout his life. But every art student now learns the techniques he pioneered.
In our current age, that posthumous recognition is less common. It is much easier for people to get there work out. It is also a fact that practice improves any skill and the internet allows for infinite creation. I can write every day and get real feedback from real people each time. This allows for rapid improvement. A few years back, a post of mine got ~134,000 shares even though I had less than 1000 followers at the time. It just seemed to resonate with people.
Many creatives have this idea that there is an abundance of good work. Some claim we are at (or near to) the point of saturation where content outweighs attention. That is simply not true. Regardless of the circumstances, the best stuff will get recognition. Yes, there is more content being created than ever. Most of it is unoriginal crap, the same few ideas rehashed again and again. Yes, some people get a lot of attention for their work despite it not deserving it. This is partly because new skills are forming a part of creative industries. For example, this man sold 100,000 copies of a completely blank book. Call it the death of integrity in publishing, though it also illustrates the new standard. No matter what, there will always be demand for the good stuff. No matter how many meaningless click-bait articles, memoirs disguised as self-help books and fabricated Youtube videos are released, there will always be space for what matters.
Robert Greene put it best: mastery is the ultimate form of power. Power is timeless. Virality might be random, but the slow burn of a creative career is not. The former is fleeting and insubstantial. The latter is lasting and meaningful. Maybe some people stand in the way. On the whole, that is down to their personal flaws and not some overarching system.
My brother was reflecting the sentiments of Marcus Aurelius, 2000 years earlier. In Meditations, he wrote something I should probably tattoo on my arm:
"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural."
In essence: many people are led by their emotions and their ignorance. The ultimate defense is to not be like them. To soften that unnecessary anger.
Sure, that train guard was an unmitigated douchebag, with a job that permits it (if not encourages it.) The world is full of people like that. Rachel Cusk's brilliant New Yorker article exemplified that issue when she described her experience in an airport the day after Brexit. Apparently it always has been.
Still, I am to trying to drum into my head that there is no vast system against me. I have responsibility for the direction of my own life and any feeling to the contrary is learned helplessness.
That, in itself, is a powerful notion.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, consider supporting this site via Patreon. For the cost of a cup of coffee each month, you can receive access to exclusive additional content and hundreds of pages of my private notebooks. Running this site takes hundreds of hours each month and your help in keeping it going without the need for adverts would be incredible.