Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Critical Mass Part I


A lot has changed in the equine collectibles world in twenty five years—and looking back with hindsight, perhaps too much. It seems we've literally forgotten who we are, spellbound in some sort of strange, willful amnesia. And so much so that newer generations may not even know this current state of affairs is a relatively new set of conditions, and those that represent the polar opposite of how all this began.

Customizing started out as a do-it-yourself (DIY) pastime, people creating their own models for the sheer joy of it. Live shows were rare and people usually came to have fun with others who shared their passions, enjoying what everyone brought to show off. In short, it was about fun and friendship, and showing was really just an excuse to gather together. It was about people not placings, about community not competition.

Yet somewhere along the way things changed and right under our noses. Curiously, sometime in the 90s the priorities flipped and became far more intense, putting placings above people, competition before community—and the fall-out splintered this activity to the core. Indeed, the tenor of the genre radically changed. Stress ratcheted up, fear began to permeate the air, and arts participation turned anemic. The DIYer inevitably got pushed out to the point where they literally have no place to compete now in any sort of playing field that matches their prerogatives. As such, we've been sloughing casual artists and countless would-be artists wholesale. This isn't a sustainable paradigm for the long-term vitality of this activity. It could even be argued that the entire future of this activity rests in large part on what we're going to do about it.

Alarmingly enough, however, this isn't a new issue. The call for DIY space is an old one, dating as far back as 1995 when people started to notice this toxic change. They warned us of the future we now face yet we did nothing about it back then. Will we make the same blunder now? There's a big difference between evolution and artificially propping up something that's not sustainable. And our current state isn’t natural or normal. Indeed, it needs an infusion of progressive ideas. In this, we can rethink our activity as better governed by The Five Cs: community, camaraderie, creativity, collecting, and competition. In that order. We need to poke competition back to the end of the line not because it’s a bad thing, but because it’s better when it follows rather than leads.

Being so, we’re going to look at the DIY issue in this five-part series and how it speaks to the need for a NonPro paradigm shift—and how that could save the venue from itself. Because it may be that something is finally changing, a rebuttal to the last twenty five years of this doubtful status quo. Indeed, NaMoPaiMo has nearly six hundred enthusiastic participants this year whereas NAN had a tricky time finding a chair. Could it be that "the times they are a-changing?" If so, let's learn from our past mistakes to consider how to best facilitate this needed priority flip. 

In this Part I then we’ll look at the background influences that congealed into the problems for the NonPro today. In Part II, we’ll consider how bullying has pushed NonPros around, beating them down. In Part III, we’ll pick apart some prejudices that keep the concept under thumb. In Part IV, those things that a NonPro is and isn’t will be detailed, and we’ll come to define it in a simple, straightforward way. Finally, in Part V, we’ll explore how NonPro can result in a cascade of benefits for everyone, and wrap up the series with some ending thoughts.

[Please know this discussion only speaks to CM and AR halter. Performance is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish which probably needs more consensus. OF is beyond my scope of understanding.]

The Plasma

If this activity started so inclusive, casual, and amicable, what changed it into something so exclusive, stressful, and intense? And how did this come to exclude DIYers? To tease out how this happened, let’s journey back in time to see how things compounded into a hoary web of conspiracy against them.

Now it could easily be argued that NAN was the instigator, and this isn't entirely untrue. By instituting green cards to qualify for The Big Show, despite the original intentions, what actually happened was an endorsement of quality. As such, they became something people chased after as a means to gain a level of more intense satisfaction, but also as an added value to their models. Put these two together and with so many plunging after them, and we have a cycle of addiction that amplifies more every year as the stakes rise. Intensity increases, stress levels go up, pressure surges, and what it takes to succeed becomes more and more inaccessible to more people. So even though the founders of NAMHSA had such wonderful, benign intentions, the far reaching consequences of this new quotient fundamentally changed the showing equation.

But the truth is that NAN was only a mirror for what was already happening in the showing gestalt, only serving to intensify what was already there. Indeed, there was a strong underlying drive towards more intense motivations that predicted NAN, and it would be this that would willfully disenfranchise the DIYer. How did this happen? If the environ was so low-pressure and playful, what skewed it so sharply towards high-pressure competition? 

It's actually not so hard to unwrap: low-pressure only prevails when everyone is on the same low-pressure page. That is to say it just takes one person with high-pressure intensity to tip the scale in the other direction. Think about it—the more intense they are, the more they win and so everyone has to adopt not only the same to keep pace, but even more to do better. Now we have a showing environment skewed towards competition full of participants ever more willing to jettison everything else to feed it. 

However, as intensity compounds, only a few have the means to develop the skills necessary to meet it. And that's the critical point: it's not that these few have more skill, they have more resources to develop that skill. For example, they have the rare opportunity to dedicate the necessary time towards their art to not only leap that learning curve, but to launch new ones. These became the professional artists—the Pros—folks who could spend their days fully focused on one thing: developing their artistic skills. In stark contrast, all other creatives—NonPros—had either a 9 to 5 job or full time school and so didn’t have the same opportunity for unlimited time. This served as the first functional barrier to the DIYer.

Being so, this advantage created a sharp imbalance resulting in ten serious repercussions. First, we now had two categories of creatives: the Pro and the NonPro. They were separated by their resources with one automatically disadvantaged through no fault of their own. It also means that the number of Pros was—and remains—small in comparison to the number of NonPros, and especially the number of potential NonPros. Even today, the Pros are the minority and the NonPros and their potentials are the majority.

Second, as innovation progressed at the unprecedented rate unlimited time gifts a Pro, the nature of our arts became far more sophisticated to become one that required uncommonly high intensity to create in the first place. That meant the NonPros were stonewalled since the intensity now required in this new competitive setting skewed everything towards the Pro. Quite literally, the interests of the minority were forced onto the majority.

Third, because this sophistication requires an intense investment and only a few had this advantage, supply could never come close to meeting demand, causing a practical problem with access. There was just never enough highly competitive models to go around. This had a two-fold effect. There was a sharp increase in prices—dramatically and quickly. Models that once cost $100 now cost $500 and then $1500 and more, all within a span of about ten years. This created a new financial barrier that made these pieces inaccessible to most, creating an even more unbalanced shot at success. In short, it became typically more expensive to successfully participate in showing further tipping the advantage towards professional artists. This sowed the deep seeds of fear as folks now perceived a future where they'd be pushed out of their beloved pastime simply because of the growing costs of participation—and that was the beginning of the love-hate relationship showers would have with its artists. Now—yes—it could be argued that people could just save up to buy one or two great models, and that was bandied about a lot. But this misses the point, which we’ll discuss more in Part III. Even so, relatively few people could end up with one of these limited pieces simply because they had the lucky or privileged access to get them, further disenfranchising even more people based entirely on things beyond their control. And quiet panic began to roil.

Put all this together and there began a widespread resentment showers had for other showers, or specifically “deep pocket” showers who could literally out-buy everyone else. And this wasn’t their pocket’s fault either—these people were targeted through no fault of their own as well. As a result, however, this fueled an ever frantic demand for "fairness" in how people procured these pieces, how they showed them, how they were judged, and even how many ribbons they won, laying the groundwork for the fear, animosity, and suspicion that would come to later characterize today's social setting. This was the contamination point of our collective well. And for the NonPros, in particular, this joyful activity quickly became one of collective stress, frustration, and displeasure, and over pieces that had nothing to do with their own interests in the first place. But perhaps more insidiously, all this seeded the idea that those who were once peers were now competitors not only in the ring, but for the very access to success. And antagonism grew.

Fourth, all this conspired to make the Pro the primary means to excel in this intensely competitive environment, making showers almost entirely dependent on them to participate with any measure of success. So what started as a NonPro activity now became one dominated by Pros. Subsequently, we saw the rise of the professional shower, those who had the financial means to collect their works paired with the intense motivation to develop that savvy Eye to spot the competitive pieces. And this isn’t a bad thing! There’s a lot of great synergy in this, they really enjoy it, and it’s a tremendously beneficial influence on this activity—but only if it remains a competition amongst peers. In contrast, however, this new showing paradigm that pitted Pros against NonPros now also pitted professional showers against them, too, and typically well beyond NonPro limitations.

Fifth, the collective knowledge base needed to understand the new sophistication of the arts was likewise intense as well, requiring a new layer of excessive investment. And all these changes happened so quickly! Predictably then, that knowledge base was slow to develop (and still lags behind in key areas) because it takes time to deepen, with a lot of disciplined hours of comparative study and typically in dry, technical jargon. It also takes significant financial investment to truly flesh out through workshops, books, classes, travel expenses, and time off work or school. The simple fact was then that most people just weren’t so invested either by motivation or practical means, things that are blameless in what’s supposed to be a fun, playful pastime. Yet this did mean that folks came to depend on Pros to furnish this knowledge for them as expressed in their pieces, making the venue further beholden to them. For example, a Pro knew how the Atlanto-Axial joint functioned, but the typical participant had never even heard of the Atlas and Axis bones. And because the knowledge base was now so intimidating and beyond the scope many, this actually stymied the desire for education rather than promote it. All this eroded the sentiment for NonPros even more, to the point of chastising them for not “doing enough to do better.” Literally a form of shaming, NonPros were silenced by peer pressure and deliberately cast aside and—by gum—they should be okay with that.

Sixth, this disconnection with the necessary knowledge base also meant that judging these pieces became more of a problem. Intensity simply outpaced most people’s understanding. Confusion, disillusionment, desperation, and frustration—even outrage—grew exponentially, causing the demand for "more knowledgable" judges to become quite shrill. Really though, who wants their $3500 model judged by someone who barely understands tobiano patterns or how a stifle works, right? But only a few judges had the adequate skills to do the job, leaving the rest—especially potential judges—at the mercy of an increasingly angry public. Accusations of bias, shenanigans, and ill intentions became commonplace and strident with such high-stakes. Yet the disconnection between the knowledge base of the typical participant and that required for high intensity work conspired against many who judged, and so many points of accuracy were simply invisible except to those few judges who could See them. And so judge shaming began, something still pervasive today. Smearing onto the rest of the community, of course, this affected NonPros as they were accused of simply wanting a pile of ribbons when they even mentioned a need for classes that catered more to their interests, as if they were being “selfish.” Apparently, they were supposed to miserably slog it out like everyone else, even when this morass didn’t match their sensibilities.

Seventh, as intense competition became the dominating priority, the expectation of live shows changed as well. No longer were shows allowed to be casual, friendly get-togethers, they had to be super-competitive, intense, and assuredly “fair,” and so now the resources and regulations required to put on a show today dwarf what was required in the past. Indeed, it may surprise many newcomers that live shows originally started as casual potlucks in people’s garages, living rooms, and backyards—even barns—where social interaction was the real impetus for coming together. What’s more, it was expected that at some point each shower would also become a host and judge, spreading the burden and helping more people understand how things worked from different perspectives. This encouraged cohesion and consensus simply because more people were on the same page.

So since live shows were once relatively easy and inexpensive to host, and often very local, costs were much lower, allowing more people access into them. And since these shows were depressurized, stress levels were much lower. Not so much today, right? Today investment on every level is quite high to both host and attend a show so they’re no longer the accessible, casual, friendly get-togethers they once were. Pair this with the blind fixation on intense competition and strident demand for “fairness,” as though a model’s value would bottom out without them, and we have a show environment now predisposed to be emotionally taxing. Even more, this is hardly a habitat that promotes the wellbeing or interests of the NonPro, further discouraging already marginalized folks.

Ninth, now that shows provided a validation of value and required more investment to attend—let alone do well in—they were no longer something we did together as a social event but became a kind of commodity, like a product provided to the consumer, even an entitlement as if showers were owed the shows they demanded “or else.” Quite literally, they became a means to an end either to gain access to NAN, legitimize a high expense, or inflate the value of a model. And the minute something appeals to avarice is the minute it becomes the most powerful thing in the room. So anyone proposing a tweak—for whatever reason—would soon meet with thinly veiled threats by many entrants who insisted that the activity cannot survive without their special brand of showing. No impetus to own hold their own shows or judge either, let alone even consider that another perspective was just as valid. It’s was all about their demands at the expense of anyone else. In essence, showers became so frozen with panic, desperation, and fixation, they literally couldn’t see beyond their own noses, even to the point where they were willing to throw their peers under countless buses. And so NonPros got covered in tire tracks. Yet in the past, showholders were almost revered and folks were grateful for their live shows, happy to have a show at all!

Finally, tenth, all this fear-based negativity essential stopped us from asking “what if.” Back in the day, “what if” was on so many lips and we were so open to trying new showing paradigms, new classes, new concepts, new approaches. We anticipated a need and we accommodated. We—as a community—were much more proactive and responsive. We just have to look at how quickly so much evolved between 1980 and 1995. But we’re not seeing that much, if at all today. Instead, we’re seeing entrenchment, dogma, fixation, denial. A distinct resistance if not outright hostility to “what ifs,” to new ideas and spins on a show, to how we regard all this and ourselves. People have now become inordinately unyielding and fearful—and fear makes people stop thinking, stop reconsidering, stop wondering, stop imagining, and stop innovating. Fear also throws up barriers between us, creating division, coercion, and corrosion, causing us to anticipate the worst in each other rather than embrace the good. This is incredibly toxic! Indeed, how judges are regarded nowadays is a clear symptom. The pervasive suspicion showers have of other showers is another. But we cannot evolve unless we’re willing to ask “what if.” And to do that we need a depressurized atmosphere to help people release their fear so we can all start asking this critical question. Above all, the movement for NonPro requires it so that people can shake off their fixations about it and start to reimagine the paradigm into something more inclusive.

The Meltdown

Put all this together and we have an activity defined by high-stakes, cut-throat competition rather than playfulness and community, by suspicion, confusion, and churlishness rather than fun and camaraderie, by exclusion rather than inclusion, by discouragement rather than encouragement, and by derision rather than cohesion. What’s more, in our fixation and our folly, we’ve even convinced ourselves that all this was actually necessary, that this was the “right” way to do things, that this was a normal and natural evolution. Indeed, we now believe that this exclusionary, high-intensity system is the ideal scenario for encouraging quality, innovation, fairness, and “better” competition. But if we’re really paying attention, we see this atmosphere has the exact opposite effect by discouraging the talent and the equitable playing field, chopping down the essential diversity and space, needed to amplify precisely those things. Indeed, what would today be like if we’d instituted NonPro classes twenty years ago? (Along with Novice and Youth.) And all this disintegration because we’ve decided that the minority should prevail at the expense of the majority, that competition and assurance of “best” is more important than anything else. This choice has left too many worried about their place in this, even the future of this activity. Truly, know it or not, none of this is good for anyone and especially not for the long-term viability of this activity.

Here’s the deal: competition as the #1 priority just isn’t a good fit. Instead, most people want fun as the top priority, and who can blame them? All this is supposed to be casual, social, and playful for most people—a true hobby. But that’s no longer the case, is it? It’s primary focus is now far too intense for most motivations and this paradigm’s ill-fitting points of friction and failure have been creating terrible blisters. Indeed, when the truth of the larger population is marginalized, we’re going to shed participants—and even more concerning—potential participants. How many NonPros are simply giving up? What are we catastrophically losing? And because our competitive arts have dwindled down to just the interests of a few, how many are choosing not to even participate at all? These people aren't vocal but we can better guess their numbers thanks to this year’s NaMoPaiMo. Honestly, we can no longer deny that this is a hobby for most and a profession for few. So can we really continue to allow the laser-focused interests of the minority to dictate the experience for the majority?

Think about it this way—tennis is a competition-based activity in which some are professional players but most actually just want to play for casual fun. But imagine if there was no setting to play for casual fun. Instead, everyone had to focus on cut-throat, high-stakes competition instead—that the actual hobby of playing tennis was about beating their fellow players rather than just having an enjoyable, low intensity game. Now imagine again if that participation in the pastime required great expense to even be successful. That’s exactly our problem.

The truth is that only a few want to pay Wimbledon when most folks just want to play tennis.

Conclusion to Part I

Despite what these trends have done over the last twenty five years, they’re only the byproduct, the symptom of a deeper toxin that was allowed to fester and course unchecked through our collective body. Instead, we cowered and acquiesced, perhaps even brainwashing ourselves that we were in the wrong. In doing so then, we willingly surrendered too much on the altar of competition, sacrificing the NonPro in the process.

In Part II then we’ll explore this systemic poison to help concoct an antidote—because we all deserve better.

“The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”

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