Dealing With Yourself as a Designer: Comparison

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I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but sometimes I tend to get stuck in these little negative feedback loops wherein everything everyone else does is awesome and everything I do is awful.

It usually happens innocently enough; I’m browsing Vimeo or Dribbble looking for inspiration, or I see some sort of featured piece in an email, and I am overcome by this revelation of awesomeness that demands complete and immediate obeisance. And of course, as a corollary suddenly everything I have ever done has sucked more than anything in the history of the universe. Granted, this isn’t exactly an objective assessment, but when I compare it to the amazing-ness du jour, I sometimes cannot help but hate everything I do.

Comparison Will Suck the Creative Life Out of You

One of the most difficult aspects of design is the tendency we all have to compare ourselves and our work with that of others. This certainly happens in many portions of life, but in the creative field it can be especially challenging. For since we tend to put so much of ourselves into what we create, comparison can really bring to bear feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-worth and a host of other ways in which our abilities and even very being can be called into question.

Comparison can be especially deadly since it gives us something tangible to contrast with our own self-doubt and inadequacy, but in a way that can make one feel like this other person has it altogether and has achieved such great things, but of course I never will.

There are times in my own work where I will go through periods of comparison where I wish that I had this person’s skills or the ability to generate this person’s ideas or work with this person’s clients and have this person’s esteem and renown. It tends to make my own efforts feel paltry in comparison, which only serves to underscore my own feelings of inadequacy and makes it all that much harder to focus on my own creative goals.

It is of course a good thing to draw inspiration from people who do great work. And there is great value in learning skills, techniques and such from people who have more experience and are at different levels. But there is a substantial difference between being inspired by someone who is awesome at what they do and loathing one’s own efforts that one feels don’t measure up. There is an equally substantial distinction between being propelled to learn and develop more because of someone’s skills and wallowing in self-doubt and self-pity because one isn’t there yet.

Comparison can kill your creative life, but it doesn’t have to.

A. Recognize comparisons are almost never the whole story

What comparison usually fails to take into account are all the myriad differences between people, projects, experience, timelines, budgets, teams and the like. It is easy to compare X project with Y project based on a finished project, but very rarely do we account for all the things that lay behind any particular work or project. You can easily be led to believe things that aren’t true because of false comparisons, which can lead to extremely misleading understandings about any particular work in question and one’s own work.

Sometimes the reality is that we all have to work with what we are given, whether in terms of budget, time, team, etc. There is very rarely the perfect project, and thus there are almost always going to be some compromises. The goal isn’t perfection per se, but rather excellence. And sometimes excellence looks very different in one situation versus another.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive to create the best we possibly can in any given situation, but rather that sometimes what comparison might require simply isn’t feasible. However, excellence is always feasible, even though it might look different.

B. Always learn and develop

Comparison can be deadly, but a healthy appraisal of one’s skills relative to someone else can lead to great future results. Expecting to be as good as someone you look up to right now is simply unrealistic; rather, like them, you have to grow and develop your craft over a long period of time and slog through a lot of projects with tons of successes and failures.

While there are sometimes prodigies in any field, most who are masters at their craft have honed that craft over tens of thousands of hours. Experience is more than just a buzzword; it is a tangible thing that adds value to any craft. You begin to figure out what works and what doesn’t. You get exposed to lots of ways of doing things and lots of end results, which gives you a larger repertoire of ideas to draw from. It builds in muscle memory that makes previously difficult things feel more effortless. It also develops the discipline to stick with something over the long haul.

Your greatest antidote to the poison of comparison is to always be learning and growing and developing your skills. Fretting about how you are not as good as someone else will add nothing to your abilities, but actually buckling down and learning something new or trying out new techniques will add skills, and the process of actively learning something new also can help develop self-confidence in that you have branched out into unfamiliar territory and come away with something worthwhile. Those are the types of successes that a well-developed craft are based upon, and by always stretching yourself you can develop those muscles more and more.

The interesting thing about this process is that you rarely ever consciously “arrive.” True, there may be techniques you master that allow something new to be developed or worked on, but usually the slow process of learning and developing gradually sneaks up on you. It’s often only in retrospect that you can see the progression, and it can be a surprising (in a good way!) thing.

C. Reach out to your heroes

It can be intimidating to reach out to those you look up to for advice. Sometimes we get this larger than life idea of people we admire, and we tend to put them out of reach and assume they are more arrogant and stand-offish than they are. However, in my experience, most designers who are great at what they do actually have great humility.

After all, it takes years to get good at anything, and over that time one will have created a lot of really cool things and a lot of things that are forgettable. Very few- even if self-taught- have gotten anywhere completely on their own, but usually owe a lot to mentors, friends and colleagues.

Most designers I know are very willing to talk about their work and their journey, and at least for myself it’s always a pleasure to be able to share any wisdom or pointers that I can. I certainly do not consider myself in the same league as most of the designers I admire, but that experience in the conversations I have had has been almost always similar.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to those you admire. Granted, it is unreasonable to expect anyone to give you an entire course on what you want to do, but there is nothing wrong with asking questions, especially about their own story. Similarly, soak up podcasts and such that have interviews with people whom you look up to, and listen to what they have to say. Very often you will find that even they still struggle with the same sorts of things that we all do.

Instead of comparing yourself to them, look for commonalities. Listen to how they got to where they are and emulate their best practices. Look for ways to incorporate parts of their story into your own. In that manner you can begin to develop good comparisons and avoid the poisonous comparisons that will kill your creative life.

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Jason Watson

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