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Letters to a Young Artist: Anna Deavere Smith on Confidence and What Self-Esteem Really Means

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“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.”

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless meditation on self-respect. But how can character be cultivated in such a way as to foster that prized form of personal dignity, along with its sibling qualities of confidence and self-esteem?

That’s what celebrated artist, actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith explores in a section of the altogether fantastic Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — a compendium of counsel addressed to an imaginary young artist, titled after the famous Rilke tome, in which Smith addresses with equal parts pragmatic idealism and opinionated optimism those of us seeking change and championing social change, as well as those who see themselves as “one of the guardians of the human spirit.” She introduces the premise, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

Art should take what is complex and render it simply. It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that. It takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls “wide-awakeness” to do that. I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.

[…]

I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.

For artists and creative spirits alike, Smith argues, the issue of confidence is as important as it is messy — and it’s also often a placeholder term for something far more crucial in the dogged pursuit of mastery that defines any successful creative endeavor. She writes:

Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.

Equally important, and arguably even trickier to navigate, is the question of self-esteem — that elusive quality so vital to our spiritual flourishing yet, due to our human fallibility, so fragile amidst the world’s constant and mostly unsolicited feedback and input. Smith reminds us that, not unlike the false validation of prestige, to peg our measure of self-worth on external validation is to commit ourselves to a never-ending cycle of disappointment — a seemingly simple observation that feels increasingly hard to internalize in our culture of “likes” and everyone’s-a-critic commentary. Smith puts it elegantly:

In the arts, value … is like a yo-yo. You can’t base your self-esteem on how well your work is selling or on how well it’s received.

Instead, she considers the essence of what self-esteem actually means and why it matters:

Self-esteem is that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right — that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.

More than a form of self-soothing, however, self-esteem is also a powerful conduit for effecting change in the world:

Some people seem to be able to organize themselves around big ideas, and others cannot. This has to do with self-esteem. Self-esteem for creative people is important inasmuch as it is a part of what helps you organize yourself and others around an idea, so that it can come to fruition. Ideas are a dime a dozen; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is a foundation.

While acknowledging, as modern psychology does, that the foundations of self-esteem itself are laid down during childhood, through our upbringing and our early experiences, Smith admonishes against relinquishing personal responsibility in the architecture of character and self-esteem, and reminds us that we are the sole custodians of our own center and worth:

Self-esteem cannot really be built from the outside. You begin to see the real evidence that you can, in fact, affect the things around you. These experiences ultimately integrate themselves inside — if that foundation is there. Self-esteem does not come from surrounding yourself with people and things that seem to increase your value. Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.

It’s about your worth. Your self-worth… You — and only you — can ultimately put the price tag on that. Your tag reveals not only how you value yourself, but how imaginative and original you are about valuing others. In my experience, happier people are people who have not only a high price tag on themselves, but a high price tag on the people around them — and the tags don’t necessarily have to do with market value. They have to do with all the sense that adds up to human value.

Letters to a Young Artist is magnificent in its entirety, a precious invitation to communion with one of the most expansive and original creative spirits of our time. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, John Steinbeck on the creative spirit and the meaning of life, and Robert Henri on how the spirit of art binds us together.

Thanks, Wendy

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