It’s Time to Destroy Your Inner Gatekeepers

It’s Time to Destroy Your Inner Gatekeepers

My husband likes to listen to podcasts in the car. Recently he discovered the Revisionist History Podcast. It’s perfect for him since he’s a huge history nerd. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to much of the podcast myself yet. But the first episode did happen to play in the background one morning while we ran errands.

For those unfamiliar with the podcast in question, the first episode summarizes the story of Elizabeth Thompson, painter of the famous Roll Call, which depicts a battle from the Crimean War. The subject of the podcast is moral licensing. Elizabeth Thompson’s Roll Call was granted a prestigious position by the Royal Academy. And Thompson almost made it into said academy, failing her nomination by a mere two votes.

By the time of the next election, Elizabeth Thompson was a famous painter in her own right. Everyone thought she would be a shoe in for the next election, but she didn’t even come close. Elizabeth Thompson never tried again to enter the academy. She is quoted as saying, “The door is closed, and rightfully so.”

Malcolm Gladwell uses this story to illustrate how society uses moral licensing to deny women and minorities wide access to places of prestige – a topic many feminist blogs have probably covered more articulately than I ever could. Gladwell mentions that Thompson married. But by the time her husband wrote about his life, her art gets not a single mention. And in her own writings, Thompson’s forays into the art world are labeled as misguided.

Which got me thinking about Gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers serve as filters

The art world has always held a particularly heavy barrier to entry. I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. But they aren’t the only area of our society blocked by Gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are supposed to ensure quality. If something doesn’t pass muster for the Gatekeepers, it’s deemed unfit for regular consumption. In some ways, this makes sense. The scientific community, for example, wants to make sure the data they are publishing is accurate, otherwise the wider population may begin to accept false data as truth.

But in areas like art and literature, where quality is a lot more subjective, the role of Gatekeepers is less helpful and sometimes more insidious. Rather than ensuring quality, Gatekeepers become filters, telling us what kind of media we should consume and which kind we should ignore. They become the holders of success. Those they bless receive a piece of the spotlight and those they reject wallow in obscurity.

In the book world, agents and publishers traditionally serve the role of Gatekeepers. They filter the slush to find the most presentable work, which they allow to grace our shelves. Even the vocabulary we use degrades the unchosen as unworthy of notice.

Today, it’s easy to bypass Gatekeepers

Enter the age of the Internet. The gates held by traditional Gatekeepers have begun to crumble. Because instead of earning passage by way of prestige, artists and writers can now take their work directly to the masses. The Internet offers everyone the ability to tap into a wider audience, provided they can find a way to contact and interact with them. Writers can take their work directly to readers. The public becomes the Gatekeepers of quality. Please the public and you don’t need the Gatekeepers to succeed.

Of course, Gatekeepers don’t like that. They don’t want to lose their positions of prestige. So they try to make it clear that only their approved art is worthwhile. Only the award winners, only the officially published are worthy of notice. This seeps into the public consciousness, creating barriers that are difficult to break. I recently wandered into a Facebook group I frequent to find a comment declaring that self-published authors were both egotistical and delusional because only traditionally published work is worth reading.

And I’m sad to say that, before I discovered the creative freedom of self-publishing, I was one of those people who thought only traditionally published work could be considered valid.

Except that I’ve read a fair number of self-published books over the past ten years. Some have been awful. But some have been amazing. I can say the same about the traditionally published books I’ve read over the past ten years. Some have been fabulous. Some turned out to be giant wastes of money. And some of those wastes were published by fairly big names.

What this tells me is that art is subjective. The only real Gatekeeper should be an individual and their personal tastes.

The biggest barrier lies inside us

But external Gatekeepers aren’t the only problem. Unfortunately, we also tend to serve as Gatekeepers to ourselves.

Fear is the biggest and hardest gate to break down. It’s the quiet voice that whispers you aren’t good enough, that you never will be, so you may as well not try. And sadly, nine times out of ten, we listen to that voice. We allow ourselves to be cowed by what seems to be impossible odds. We find our safe, comfortable space, and we stay there.

This is true in a creative sense. But it also applies to every other aspect of our lives.

Recently, my husband and I undertook a major life change. The first in five years. We decided to buy a bigger house and look for ways to supplement our income. Not only so that I can keep writing full time, but to make it easier for me to do so. We’ve bought houses before, so we thought we knew what to expect.

It turns out we were wrong. (But that’s a whole other blog post.) Making this change required me to step through my fear gate and explore what lays on the other side. Something I’m spectacularly bad at. I’ve never been good with change. It takes me awhile to work up the courage and acclimate to new things. But when you’re in the process of buying a house, you often don’t get a lot of time to contemplate. (Or you get too much time, which is even worse!)

There’s a reason we say things like nothing ventured nothing gained. And fortune favors the brave. Without taking risks, you can never really move forward. But risks are terrifying because they require you to cross the threshold of your fear and keep moving forward without looking back.

Destroy your inner Gatekeeper

During the roughest tides of this transition, I reassured myself by looking back at all the times I’ve previously passed through the fear gate. There was my journey to get Canadian citizenship after marrying my husband. Followed by our move to Quebec. Then our first house flooding with sewage a month after we bought it. And probably the biggest, hardest thing we ever did: moving to England.

Each and every one of those transitions was frightening in its own way. Some of them, like citizenship, England and the house repairs felt impossible when we started down the path. But each and every one of them eventually led to a better place. I’ve been a Canadian citizen for more than 10 years now. We made enough money off of our first house to buy our second house despite all the issues. And our journey to England led us to the town we’d like to live in forever.

Still, knowing I’ve successfully navigated the fear gate before, doesn’t necessarily make it easier to cross the threshold today. This might not be the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it feels that way in the moment. I’m trying to keep my eye on the promised future. I’ve survived big changes before; I’ll survive them again. But I can’t help thinking how fear, our internal Gatekeeper, is the biggest opponent we ever face.

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the main character constantly reminds himself that fear is the mindkiller. I’ve never been able to see that more clearly than the week I wrote this post.

So while we’re slowly bypassing our external Gatekeepers, maybe it’s time to dismantle the internal ones too. We may never entirely kick fear to the curb, but learning how to charge through the gate wouldn’t go amiss.

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