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A perception of yourself that you just can't shake
A piece about the growing pains of creative and competitive life, and the difficulty of letting others define your context.
Earlier this week I came across a piece about “growing pains” which really spoke to me — it talked about when your brain knows it’s going through a change, and how you, as a person, transition from one set of circumstances to another. Whether you’re making the decision to move on from a bad habit, or a bad relationship, there’s a point where it just doesn’t work for you anymore, and you notice how you handle that.
When I read it, it led to some thoughts about creators, esports, and the type of things I cover here; I figure I’d paste some sections, along with where it took me.
(I’ve been kind of struggling with the format of this piece, mostly because what I want is really referential to another person’s Substack. I’m going to linkby Isabel (can’t link her Substack profile, for some reason) below and hope for the best.)
I really love Isabel’s work because it takes the type of introspection and internal work I’m trying to do and makes the tone feel a lot more airy, light, and kind. In “growing pains,” she discusses the idea of being able to tell when certain modes of being stop working for us; it’s usually when we’ve outgrown previous modes of being, and our brains are both trying to urge us forward, but keep us in comfort.
A couple passages stuck out to me, but for reasons I’m kind of embarrassed about: less about the idea of personal growth, but more about the idea of performing previous versions of yourself in order to satisfy the needs of others.
One of the reasons it is so powerful to go somewhere new is because no one knows who you are—your external perception resets entirely. It’s like tearing away all of the vestigial cobwebs draped over your old self. You get to dust yourself off, polish yourself up, and present a new, updated you to the world. No one can say: what happened to you? Because they never knew a previous version of you. They only know who you are right now. And that is quite liberating—to be fully present without worrying about what your environment expects of you.
At this point in the creator metagame, we’re reached multiple generational, stylistic and aesthetic inflection points: times when circumstances of the greater industry or individual people change.
This might be something like a creator growing out of a hobby like video games, or someone like a child YouTuber physically growing up. It could be something like the industry moving away from multi-part Let’s Plays, or a longform video essayist feeling completely left behind by an algorithm.
The saying of “adapt or die” feels like the easy out here, but I also notice the tendency for the creator to not know when their habits/safety need to change. Sometimes creative projects need to die in order to make room for creators’ new efforts elsewhere: no one wants to be stuck with the same gimmick forever.
This whole process of watching a part of yourself die as you are still in an environment where that self needs to exist is quite confusing. Acting out your prior self isn’t challenging per se, because inertia keeps your habits and ways of being alive, but it becomes intrinsically painful to portray a part of you that is withering.
What once required no effort (because it was natural! it was you!) now requires immense effort (because it is no longer you, so you have to act out that version of yourself). The shoes are getting tighter because your feet are growing. This is why environmental change is so powerful: you can manually leave behind a version of yourself and go somewhere else to let a new self flourish.
This was the part that reall stuck out to me, because what popped into my brain was the picture of a creator who feels captured or held hostage by the audience/niche they’ve built for themselves. Can they afford to stop gaming? Are they stuck with the same metaphorical catchphrase as a millstone around their neck?
I didn’t make the connection between PewDiePie letting his audience know about his pending progeny until actually tying this paragraph, but it kind of fits. Felix was able to leverage his (immense) capital into probably the most radical thing of all: removal from dependency on a system for survival.
The PewDiePie of today is vastly different from the one who started his channel; I can’t say that I’ve followed him closely, but I at least got the impression that he was in charge of his own destiny. While other creators are the same “too big to fail”, I think it takes a certain degree of humility and self-reflection to act on those growing pains, and ironically, it leads to the most important currency of all: authenticity.
And not the synthesized kind, either.
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Working in esports, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the players who never quite break through to that highest echelon. Despite needing to invest the time to lead to the possibility of “making it”, there’s no guarantee they will.
If they miss their window, then what? If they still try, what if they fall further? If they had some semblance of a legacy, is it worth protecting?
I think how this interfaces with Isabel’s piece is who is making the decision:
My friend recently shared an idea with me that I’ve been loving. He said: whenever you go from one thing to another, make sure to leave in connection. I figured he meant: when you leave somewhere, be present and grateful for what it gave you before you go. Seems simple enough, right?
But as I’ve explored my own growing pains, I’ve understood that to leave in connection is to acknowledge, celebrate and grieve the version of yourself that was conceived in that place. To make peace with a part of yourself that is no longer. Not in a dark, painful way, but in a beautiful, celebratory way—by acknowledging that this version of yourself was a critical part of your development. To recall and be grateful for all of the beautiful, explorative ways you grew in this iteration of yourself, while understanding that this version of yourself has had its time. You make peace with its completion—you leave in connection.
In a creator, athlete, or inflection sense, the decision is being made by the market. It is being made by time. It is not a quiet rebellion, led by your brain, telling you that you don’t actually like the thing you’re doing anymore.
It’s a push from external forces, telling you that your choices are:
Continued performance of what you think you are, but cannot succeed with (the player, past their prime, or the never-was)
Continued performance of what others think you are (that you can’t abandon due to obligation)
Leaving, despite that connection (mentioned by Isabel) and peace not being forged yet.
All seem a bit… soul destroying.
The irony of the situation is that many people choose or idealize this career path because of the illusion of flexibility, or the independence from systems that would dictate boundaries that infringe on personal choice.
If someone does blow up or “make a hit”, it’s almost like they have to have a high degree of personal dignity to be able to step back, say “is this how I want to succeed?” and realize that the nature of the path is determined by your utility to the system you’re serving.
I think as more people become aware of this, that ambition for the freewheeling influencer life loses a lot of its luster. It also means that rebelling against that system means a different set of circumstances.
I have a few creators in my head when I talk about that rebellion, and I’d like to get into that topic eventually. For now, I’m content to leave it here.
This is your moment, and every single minute you spend Tryna hold on to it 'cause you may never get it again So while you're in it, try to get as much shit as you can And when your run is over, just admit when it's at its end — Eminem, "'Till I Collapse", 2002