3 Lessons from Kendrick Lamar's "Humble" about comparing yourself to others
Youtube is a procrastinator's dream. Every video click educates the platform to serve up more content to feed the insatiable consumption need, and when I saw Kendrick Lamar's music video titled "Humble" float across my screen a few days ago, I went down the music video vortex faster than Trump's approval ratings.
The video opens with Kendrick standing in a cathedral in pope-like attire, a single beam of light casting dust filled rays across his shoulders. It's an immediately recognizable symbolism -- whatever he's about to spit are words of personal worship.
As the film unfolded with powerful visuals, including the last supper, low riders, images of male blackness incarcerated, and gangster Dons, there’s three lessons that immediately emerged about the trap of comparing ourselves and our work to others:
1. Stop Trying to Birth a Grown Person Straight From The Womb
What struck me first about this song is the simple, trance-inducing chorus:
Kendrick is echoing warning to rappers who bashed his work or claimed they are better MCs than he is. You can also take this clever hook as a reminder to be humble about your start. Every creation, and career, had an embarrassing, rough-around-the-edges, stained-shirt, crusty, dusty, start. Even Kendrick’s.
You wouldn't expect a baby to come out of the womb like a 25 year old person who already knows how to walk, talk, and avoid Sallie Mae. You wouldn't expect yourself to become triathlon ready, with rock-hard, 8 pack abs, from taking one leisurely mile walk around your local park -- so you shouldn't expect your work or creation to be expert level perfection out the gate.
Give yourself the space to grow and become better as a creator. Perfection is the enemy of the good. There are numerous examples of incredible achievers we take for granted as always being great, like Michael Jordan, one of the most prolific basketball players of all time. People forget Jordan couldn’t even get onto his High School basketball team when he first started out. Great talents who seem to have infinite success start at ground 0.
Taking a large dose of humility when on the path to building something can relax the expectations, remove the mental blocks from getting started, and can give you more motivation to improve upon your work with steady persistence.
2. Don't Forget Your ‘Syrup Sandwich’ Moments
The first line in "Humble" transports the listener to Kendrick’s modest beginnings, from "syrup sandwiches and crime allowances" to "countin’ parmesan where his accountant lives."
This come-up story is central to many of Kendrick Lamar’s works -- with his first studio album titled after the government assistance he and his family had to live off of a.k.a. Section.80.
There’s a deep emotional tie between identity and creativity -- who we are informs the work we do and create. To deny that, is to deny the world access to a vulnerable and teachable part of you that could lift someone else who can relate, or could inform someone unaware of your unique experiences and the lessons within them.
Staying grounded in the truth of your authentic experience, and not trying to adopt someone else's, is important for any creator or worker. It brings a unique perspective that will resonate with people in a more organic way while allowing you to be honest with your self-expression, which studies show is cathartic.
Kendrick is very clear that Compton raised him and he has no shame in his experiences, and alludes to them in "Humble" from his syrup sandwich line to the visuals of him and his homies circled up and chanting why we should take a seat, be humble, and sit down.
Jennifer Lopez a.k.a ‘Jenny from the block’ alludes to her childhood in the South Side of the Bronx in various songs, Jay-Z is very honest about his early life in the Marcy projects, and we all know Beyoncé is from Houston and carries “hot sauce in her bag.” We all evolve and will change over time, but we shouldn’t forget where we started.
3. If You Must Compare, GO BACK IN TIME
It's a slippery slope when comparing ourselves to what other people are doing and creating. It's common to feel like we're behind, that we haven't done enough, or achieved enough by a certain age. That our creative outputs, our work, our careers, our artistry isn't good enough. We've all been fed a specific idea of what success is, which typically is supposed to tread a linear path of schooling, job climbing, and finally an established plateau of comfortable success. It can also feel like everything under the sun has already been done, and to be honest, it has.
Kendrick talking about his humble beginnings to stardom and the struggle of staying grounded isn't anything new. It's a familiar trope that almost every artist goes through and expresses in their work after their first taste of fame. The visuals built behind the song in the video are also not new -- their familiarity purposefully evoke sensibilities about retribution and universal understandings of struggling with work and life.
Kendrick is able to take these common truths and make them his own expression and his own public lesson.
As a creator -- the fear and comparison trap of originality is startling. I'm sure there are times when you've had a spark of an idea but then instantly snuffed the creative fire out because you thought:
Who am I to pen that song?
Who am I to start that project, spit poetry, found a company, stand on stage and belt my opinions to the back of the auditorium? It's already been done before.
Can you imagine if every artist or creator had that thought? There would be only one singer, one dancer, one writer, one entrepreneur that ever happened in the entire world history of mankind. Life would be pretty boring to say the least.
Where you are now is exactly where you're meant to be. Your unique perspective, experience, and set of talents will set your work apart. If you must compare your work, use a mental time machine to check how far you have progressed from where you started. It's ok to admire other work and be inspired by it, but don't get into the trap of comparing yourself so much to other people’s lives that you have no confidence to build your own.
We all have a personal narrator in our heads that sounds like a running track of doubt and worries in the hopes of mitigating rejection/fear/pain. But it does nothing but kill the burgeoning dreams that could be a solution or even cure to someone's ailment in the world.
"Humble" is an ode to remembering our starting point, our identities, and to stopping our unhealthy comparisons to other's works and lives.
It’s better to silence the voices of doubt and envy.
Be humble. Sit down. Get started.