Why exactly do we hate it when our friends become successful? Singers read on…

In the words of one Stephen Patrick Morrisey – “We hate it when our friend become successful”

Many a professional singer I have spoken with laughs about the inauthenticity of the facebook “like” they use to signal happiness at another singer landing a role. Others say how they feel obliged to congratulate them, but inside they feel negatively about the situation. Perhaps envy, jealousy, insecurity, doubt or any number of other emotions is triggered by the news of someone else’s success, I don’t know. What I do know is that this isn’t an isolated phenomenon, as practically every artist I’ve spoken with suggests they feel it to some degree.

Let’s try and unpack this a little bit. When we experience a feeling, it’s based on our interpretation of the world, which is itself a consequence of a set of beliefs we hold resulting from our life experience. Our beliefs arise from the stories we tell ourselves about what events in the world mean. Humans are always making meaning. The brain’s job is to make meaning from events, so that’s what it does, but because it largely does this out of our awareness it can be difficult to understand the world that it’s constructing in the process.

Things happen in the world all the time, rainfall, road accidents, flowers growing, winds blowing, we live immersed in a sea of events, both natural and generated by our human interactions. As soon as we observe and describe these events however, we begin to interpret the world using language – which is another way of saying we generate a narrative, or tell ourselves a story. That narrative is the basis of our judgement about what these events mean – it adds our layer of meaning and interpretation to the event we’ve witnessed. You can see then that we subjectively interpret events, and the feelings we experience are based on this interpretation.

The question then is this; are you content with the feelings you experience when you hear of another singer’s success? If you are, you might want to stop reading now (in fact it’s unlikely you’ve got this far!). If you’re not, then there’s a bit more to be said, because you’ve probably noticed that the act of asking the question implies that you can change your feelings. You don’t have to fake your happiness or repress the negativity you feel – those are perfectly valid reactions in the context of your current narrative. Are they working for you though? Is that who you want to be?

It’s possible to change our own internal narratives, and in the process construct a different world view, one that leads to experiencing different emotions. To demonstrate the idea, let’s say another singer lands a great part that’s in your repertoire. You think they’re not as good as you, or they’re too old or too young, too fat or basically just too “not you”, and as a result you feel in some way diminished by their selection for the part. That suggests a world view that contains some of the following ideas:

• There are only so many productions each year, so the supply of roles is finite and any role someone else gets is one I haven’t got. Therefore what’s good for someone else is bad for me.

• Whoever cast this person doesn’t know much about singers because I’m better, thinner, younger, older or any other adjective of your choice.

• The selection of someone else over me is a vote of no-confidence in my abilities.

• My view of the musical truth is the truth of what should count as good music.

In this illustration, a world is being constructed where an artistic production is controlled by a few people who know what counts as good, where the singers are passive recipients of judgements and are pitted against each other. In this world view there are objective truths in music that some singers are better than others, that singers themselves know how a role should be cast, and that essentially everyone in the process is part of some unacknowledged conflict. Such a world-view understandably leads to some difficult emotions. Worse, we feel we can’t express our difficulties for fear of harming our reputation, so those difficult feelings are trapped unresolved within us. To continue with our illustration, let’s now try and re-construct this world view in a different way.

Let’s begin with casting. This is done by a human being, who as far as we know sets out to do the best job they can. They have all the same difficulties, emotions, narratives, prejudices and uncertainties that you do, and they see large numbers of talented singers from whom they somehow have to select. They have a vision in mind for the role and need to fulfil it somehow. The point is, it’s not simple or straight-forward, and because we’re all different it’s not surprising if their views don’t coincide with ours. Some things in life are quite difficult, and reasonable people quite naturally disagree about the best way of handling them. In contrast to our previous narrative though, here we come to realise that casting is a subjective process, in which case if you don’t get a role it can hardly represent a vote of no-confidence in your skills. Rather it simply represents a difference of opinion, and if that’s the case how are you diminished by someone else’s view?

In moving on to singers themselves we need to ask, who is to say who is a better singer than someone else? The word better isn’t an objective judgement, but instead is used to exclude and decry those who happen not to make a sound we ourselves enjoy. Is Bob Dylan a better singer than Pavarotti? I doubt that you would think so, but some people might say he was, because he projects something of value to them based on their world view – and why should there not be room for both views? It’s just an illustration of course. The wider point is that the moment we divide our inner world into good and bad, right and wrong, we begin to exclude the contribution of others from our world, and to minimise the number of possible narratives we have. In so doing we invite our negative emotional responses to stay for supper, as though our view of the world was the only truth, and we deny the opportunity for those we judge harshly to make a contribution to our art. (Yes, our art. You might regard the audience as passive consumers of entertainment, but as an audience member I regard myself as one aspect of the production, after all, what’s art with no audience?).

And what of the limited number of roles at any one time? When someone lands a great role, that means people are coming to watch them sing, and if that were to happen more often rather than less, then there would be a demand for more singers, not less. If there were demand for more singers, you would have a better chance of getting a great role, not a worse one. A rising tide lifts all ships. Rather than seeing the world as a zero-sum game in which your gain is my loss, might we not consider that anyone’s success helps build interest and income for opera – whether or not you like their voice or think they’ve been cast “correctly”?

The central point of all this is simply is that we are the ones who construct our world view, based on our past experience and our internal narrative. If we want to feel differently, we need to change that narrative.

You might realise however that even this idea for positive change frames the discussion as all about me. My career, my feelings, my narrative. The point of embracing positive change within yourself isn’t just that you’ll feel better, it’s that doing so is of service to others as well, because instead of judging and excluding their perspectives we invite them in – we allow room for multiple interpretations, new interpretations even. In an age where the arts often struggle commercially, such new interpretations could offer great potential for positive change.

Suppose for example a casting director’s job wasn’t to choose who gets a role, but instead was to articulate a vision for the part and draw-up a short-list of possible singers. The singers all listen to each other audition, and afterwards they all meet together with the casting director. Everyone then discusses between them who will get the part. That might not be a better way, but it’s a different possibility, and that’s the point. Our worlds are only what we construct them to be, and if we want a better future for everyone in the arts, then we are challenged to choose whether what we are currently constructing is best serving our ends.

You might not agree with any of this. You might decide to try it and it might not work for you – but if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. I guess we could all just go and get an office job, but changing ourselves and our art is possible – I know because I’ve seen it. And if we really want to feel better about ourselves, and help develop the art form we love, then it’s up to us to choose.