You know the feeling. You’re sensing a bit of a rut with your creativity, so you decide to take a look at some others’ work for a boost of inspiration. You start looking through Instagram, blogs, Facebook, or some other medium, and that sinking feeling creeps in. By the time you notice it, you are so far down the spiral, you don’t even know when inspiration was replaced with the feeling of overwhelming self-doubt. Now you don’t want to make anything at all. What’s the point?
So what happened? Compare and despair happened. The minute you measure your own work to the work of others, the feeling of despair sets in.
Our propensity for comparison is very human, and it starts with our instincts. We derive from pack animals who depend on the group for survival. Animals who survive in a pack have to show that they are bigger, better, and stronger than the other group members. The perception of weakness by any member of the group means exclusion from the pack. This is why comparison is so deeply engrained in us. We start out comparing grades and height, and then more subjective things like attractiveness and skill-level. We especially employ comparison when we are uncertain about ourselves in that particular realm. The more insecure we are, the more we look for external validation, and the more we compare instead of looking inwards.
Comparing to improve to be better is part of the creative experience, not only with artists, writers, and musicians, but with entrepreneurs too. Companies often use comparison or “benchmarking” to strive to learn from other companies and work more efficiently. But the way creatives benchmark is usually self-defeating. We spend hours on the internet looking at what others are doing, and comparing their genius to our perceived mediocrity. We count likes, followers, and other data that don’t seem to measure up. We can even convince ourselves that with all these great producers, there isn’t enough room out there for our work.
There have been whole years that I let comparing get the best of me, and I didn’t engage in my creative pursuits. Now, when feel it coming on, it lasts no longer than an hour. This has taken a lot of practice to curb. I have found a few tried and true solutions to overcome the compare and despair monster.
1. Don’t compare your insides to others' outsides.
The problem really sets in when we assume. We compare our insides to others’ outsides. This expression means that we perceive our efforts as a tragic chain of infomercial-looking attempts, and contrast it to another’s seemingly perfect chain of successes. We have no idea how much effort went into a finished piece or a successful career, but we think we know.
When comparing, we tend to try to bring others down to make excuses for ourselves not being where they are.
“Well I’m not as talented as they are.”
“It’s easy for them. They don’t have kids.”
“They are young and have all this energy that I don’t have.”
“They aren’t dealing with ___________ like I am.”
Many of these are extremely valid hardships. But the reality is the same, we are assuming it was effortless for them.
When we assume it is easier for others, not only do we invalidate their hard work but, more importantly, we justify our own inaction.
It is easier to say, “I can’t” than to admit, “I’m not willing to learn how.”
2. Don’t compete with others in your field. See them as community.
I used to think like this, “This person is doing the same thing as me. They are trying to get the same clients and the same followers. They are the enemy.” It took me a while to see that there were plenty of clients and followers to go around, and in the meantime I was lonely and missing out on some great community. I am now a part of a community of like-minded individuals and I have gained so much knowledge, reassurance, and great conversation from it. It has changed the way I go about life and business.
Competition doesn’t serve us at all. When we compete with other artists, we are most certainly not thinking of the long game and we aren’t listening to our own voice. Competing to fill the desires of the market, to get more likes, instead of creating from one’s own voice, is a short-sighted mentality that will only lead to burn out. When you look around at your competition while running, you start to head where your eyes are pointing, and, before you know it, you are running in a different direction than the finish line.
3. Use envy for self-discovery.
Envy itself is not bad, stagnant jealousy is. Envy can lead to self-discovery, and show us our true passions. I discovered my passion for design through envy first, then action. I was very jealous of those in design careers, especially friends, and eventually I had to see the feeling for what it was: a desire to do what they do. That was my path, and it was effective. It would have been wasted if I didn’t examine my uncomfortable emotions.
So when you are feeling comparison, don’t get stuck in it. Ask yourself these questions:
What about their work inspires me?
Where does my work express those qualities?
Where does my work differ from those aspects?
What can I learn from my desire to demonstrate more of this artist's qualities?
When we ask ourselves these questions, we get to the root of the problem, and we learn something huge about ourselves. Envy can be a blatant sign of desire and shed light on the fears that are holding us back.
4. Be realistic and set yourself up for success.
“In order to do something well, we must first be willing to do it badly.” -Julia Cameron: The Artists Way
As creatives striving to be better at our craft, we often look upwards and ahead of ourselves- often too far ahead. When we search for something on the internet for inspiration, we find the most popular and the “best” results for that skill. It is not an accurate portrayal of all the diversity that is out there. I feel especially uncomfortable blogging badly because there are so many great bloggers out there, but I also know it is extremely necessary that I do this poorly first in order to get better.
Don’t compare yourself to a seasoned artist in your field if you are just starting out. Find someone who is a little bit ahead of you, not worlds ahead of you. Be realistic. It is going to take time.
Look at these Instagram feeds to get motivation. These artists have the beginning of their process out there for the world to see. You can see that they started out like the rest of us. Even if you aren’t a hand-letterer, you can see the significant progress over time, proving that practice makes the craftsman, not just talent.
Scott Beirsack @youbringfire
Laci Ann @laci.ann
Sean McCabe @seanwes
Ian Barnard @ianbarnard
And me! @noahcampdesign
5. Learn to validate yourself.
Don’t expect to arrive at success some day and be done with comparing. It is all relative. If you use comparison to gage your success now, you always will. There are plenty of successful and famous people who feel like they aren’t good enough. If you keep using the external to judge your work, you never learn another way. Shift to making improving on your own work the goal. The more you learn to love and value your unique voice, the less you will find yourself comparing yourself to others. Acknowledge how far you’ve come. Make sure your own Instagram feed, recordings, writings, etc, are available for you to see where you started and where you are now. Give yourself credit for small achievements.
If you’re growing then you are succeeding. If the goal is getting better, than that can be achieved daily. The goal of improving is an awesome motivator to wake up to in the morning.