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How to Compare Yourself to Others and Survive

Yesterday we talked about heroes, and how important it is to have a handful of people who inspire you, from whom you can learn, and who's lives and careers you can emulate. But there is also an inherent danger in comparing ourselves to others.

I don't think it's the same in other professions. If my accountant followed the work of another, and admired the heck out of her bookkeeping skills, I don't think she would be in danger of total self-hatred and possibly giving up on accounting all together. "I'll never be as good at balance sheets as Margaret, I don't know why do I even bother!" So why do creative types seem to have such paper thin egos?

On one level it's obvious, right? Margaret's work as an accountant doesn't define her as a person. Right or wrong, we are our business. We are our brand. So certainly we tend to take things a bit more personally. But there's more to it than that. What we create comes from within, and as such is stamped with a bit of our souls, a bit of our DNA. Ok, that sounded gross. What I mean to say is that any judgement against our work is inherently a bit of judgement about us personally.

So it is absolutely vital that we find ways to distance ourselves personally from our work, at least in as much as it is a product. If a writer misses something important in an article, he can go back and change it. If I paint a horse that looks like a dog, I can grab the tube of paint and make it a tree instead. If you're doing a commission piece that you're particularly proud of, and the client tells you they changed the color of the couch and it now must match pink upholstery, you do it. It's not personal. It's really not. If we can get over that hurdle of making everything a judgement, and every problem a catastrophe, then we can move on to the good reasons to compare ourselves to others.

The other dark side of comparisons is that we tend to praise ourselves through the faults of others. Oh, don't look at me that way, you do it too! We read a short story and think, hell, I can do better than that. Or we've all seen artwork that we think looks like absolute crap and said... "My kid can paint better than he can." We figure we're OK, because there are those who are worse than we are. I don't think I need to dwell on why that's not a very productive way to compare your work to that of another. The main reason, other than being really petty and a little mean, is that attitude only reinforces our conviction that everyone else is picking our work apart in the same way.

What if we just broke that cycle? What if we compared our work to others because we want to get ideas, inspiration, and learn to better our technique. If we approach looking at the work of others in that way, it becomes less like a courtroom, and more like a classroom. Comparing our product to that of another creative becomes an important tool that makes us better, and perhaps builds relationships with that creative.

So repeat after me. "My work is good. It may be very different, but it is definitely good enough." Now keep repeating that until you believe it. Accept too that everyone else's work is good too. It really is. Then realize that you need to compare your work to other creatives because it may help you identify trends to improve sales. It may inspire you or challenge some limiting rule you've adopted. It may teach you about a new technique, or some way to improve your work flow. It may open opportunities to ask questions, and make a friend out of the creative you're reviewing. Whatever comes of the comparison, you cannot allow it to become petty, negative, or convince you that you will never be as good... did I mention that you are good enough?

Now I'm not saying that there may be artists you don't like, and work that will offer you nothing. I'm not interested in comparing my paintings to taping a banana to the gallery wall. But that's not an artist I will compare myself to anyway. At the end of the day, be nice, be confident, and compare your work and your creative career, to as many people as you can. Approached in the right way, it's a tool that will serve you for a lifetime.

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