Last year, I was having a nice conversation with a communications executive about my frustration working for a second time with a former collaborator.
Her response was:
Well you know what they say: whoever got you here won’t be the one to get you there. It’s brutal, but true.
For months after her advice, I operated that way, but I’ve since been meditating on this cliché and I’ve concluded that it’s false. Or at least it’s misleading. I think, in the right spirit, the aphorism literally means well, but I doubt its truth is something we can bring to bear upon our world.
Whoever gets you to the next stage of your journey will be assuming the momentum of your prior relationships. Whoever got you here assumed they could get you here from where you’d been before — they assumed they had something to build upon. And it’s the same for the next people who help you grow. They have met You 2.0 and therefore need not mess with pesky beta testing of You 1.0 — the hard work is over for them. This is the whole point of the “master of two worlds” bit of the hero’s journey: there is an implied return, an assumed “back again” to every voyage destined for “there.”
Or did you think Joseph Campbell was only talking about the way narratives work?
Because of the implied “back again” for every quest aimed at “there,” networks that lead you to the next stage of your journey don’t work like stages of rocket boosters. You don’t just drop former friends and let them fall off the deep end. This is why average people get hurt when someone hits their stride, gets famous, and drops their friends.
“Now don’t forget us when you’re famous. I can say I knew you when…”
Of course it’s unfair to assume that any give person will stay the same as they were back when “we knew them.” People change. We’re all a part of that change, hopefully for the better.
However, the heart of these “don’t forget us” and “don’t act like a diva — we know how human you really are” lines is found in the desire to participate in something big, something meaningful, even if that implies riding the coattails of someone we have sent along their merry way.
Another cliché directly opposed to the first goes, “it takes a village to raise a nut.” Small towns operate like this but so do micro locales in cities—the Sunset Park community board here in Brooklyn is beyond proud of J.W. Cortez (actor from the show Gotham) and the guy stops back in for festivals and the like:
So which is it? Those who got you here won’t be the ones to get you there? Or it takes a village?
Luckily, I don’t have to answer the question. I did the most reasonable thing imaginable: I asked my Facebook friends to debate it.
One author asked:
If you’re growing, wouldn’t you expect that the people around you are growing too?
And another followed with:
I think you need to nurture all of your connections, because you never know who’s going to end up leading you to something important.
Which evolved as a third said:
“The ones who got you here” will evolve as “here” changes. If you’re evolving, you won’t always be on the same rung of the ladder. Those who can lend a hand to help you to the next rung won’t always be the same people. Some might be, but not all will be. And new faces–and helping hands–can come on the scene at any time as you progress.
So whoever got you here might be the ones who can help get you there.
I do think artists should remember their roots, in terms of remaining grateful for all who’ve helped along the way.
I’m thinking particularly now of the Bad Myth of the Lone Wolf Artist, of those who pretend to live life outside of community — of how we need the consistent physical presence of real people in our lives in order for our art to thrive. Which is where the second author chimes in:
The person who helped me the most with my novel is someone I never would have expected.
The third author thought:
I think that speaks to humility, that we can be open to ideas — such a great way to evolve, imo.
She’s right — the only way to become a knight is by kneeling. The knight kneels, receives a revoked death sentence from the King’s blade on either side of his neck, and rises to do the same for his squires. Says the first author:
I think paying it forward is important. There are a lot of ways to do that, and no one can do them all, but I think everyone should do something. It’s important for the people you help, and the larger community, but it’s also important for your own heart and soul.
At this point, a medieval philosopher and theologian jumped into the conversation:
The philosopher who finds a new level of understanding (or any type of craftsperson) who doesn’t share that insight with the community that fostered his opportunities simply fails to understand what it means to be human.
Did they think it was their responsibility to bring others along? The second author spoke up first:
Responsibility? I don’t know. But I do know it’s mutually beneficial. If you help people out whenever you can, you’re going to end up with a lot of people who have positive feelings about you, and that makes it much more likely that people will be willing to help you when you need it.
And the medievalist responded:
If you have a good that will improve yourself and others and you squander it, I don’t know any word for that other than irresponsible. Granted it’s a hard question to know which good to cultivate, but that is a different issue I think.
A painter spoke up:
I think it’s different for every person. For example, there comes a time when the student surpasses a teacher and needs a new one. Good art takes community to make it happen. Anyone who doesn’t see that is blind.
I responded, “Well I guess that would make Katherine Anne Porter blind :: http://www.theparisreview.org/…/the-art-of-fiction-no…” In her Art of Fiction interview, she flat-out makes fun of what was going on in Paris in the 30’s. Meanwhile, she was revolting in Mexico. The painter responded:
She states in several places that community helped her. The letter writers in her family for instance, an then there is Skakespeare etc. that she is reading. It’s all connected to others. Family, the backdrop of people who taught her to read and write. She had community just not as much as others. If she doesn’t see that , then yes, she’s blind.
After the conversation, here’s where I’m at in the midst of all of this:
I believe relationships have a half-life or a life cycle. If you assume Dunbar’s number to be true, and I do, then there is a finite number of people with whom you can maintain contact over time. I believe it works much like the bell graph used for the adoption of technology or ideas:
- Innovators work like bridges between stages. As laggards from your previous stage of life, they come in as new acquaintances and help shape your identity for the next season.
- Early adopters receive the baton from them and enter into a build-up phase, laying a relational foundation for what is to come. They hand you off to an
- Early majority in whatever company or district or city you find yourself within. At this point, people are excited to join with you in your work and will set the trend for the rest of the
- Late majority who have hesitated to jump into any relationship hastily. Having earned the trust of the other three groups, you now have the vast majority of people in your corner before
- Laggards show up. In our experience, we’ve always had transitional friends on either side of our big moves. In Joplin right before we moved to New York, we met some people who are great friends but really just stood in the gap and helped us bridge our leap from the midwest to the east coast. They seamless handed off the baton to or transformed into the innovators of the next stage.
Let me mix metaphors for a second. This isn’t a flat bell curve I’m talking about. It’s an Elliot Wave. Elliot wave theory essentially analyzes broad trends within crowd psychology. For positive moves forward, it looks like this:
A move forward, a slight retreat. Move forward, retreat. Move forward, peak, and correction. For our purposes, innovators are 1, early adopters are 3, early majority is 5, late majority is a, and laggards are c. Once they hand off to the next group, it looks like this:
Imagine it’s a fractal and this process can repeat an infinite number of times with every laggard becoming or partnering with a group of innovators to bring you to the next level — whether career, relational, devotion, whatever.
But the whole thing?
It’s one seamless chart. One seamless picture. You can keep zooming out, but eventually it’s a “rise and fall” of a career or a personality and at the bottom of the full correction, you’ll either humble yourself to start a new upward trajectory or you’ll settle for having peaked.
But my friends are right — you need the people who came before you and you need the ones ahead of you. It’s a giant wave pool of relationships, so I would suggest being aware of the boundaries you need to set up because some people are coming into that circle of 150 relationships you can reasonably manage and others are fading away either through death or time and distance.
Whoever got you here won’t get you there, but they did get you here, so don’t forget them: we are all of us contingent upon that which came before us and are therefore wholly derivative in our work.
And at the end, you’ll be where you’ve wanted to be all along and have taken tons of people with you in a legacy that lasts for many, many years to come.
cover image by clrcmck