The Comparison Catch 22: Why Comparing Yourself to Others is Useful and Damning
"Why can't my work be as good as hers..."
"He really knows what he's doing, why don't I?"
"Will I ever be that good?"
"Look how much they improved in just a year! I'll never achieve that..."
These will most probably sound familiar, or something like them. Thoughts like this rudely stumble into your brain the moment you lay your eyes on somebody else's work, or career highlights, or general existence. You try to appreciate the work for what it is; a demonstration of an individual's skills and imagination. But the intrusive "oh look what they can do... why can't you do that?" thought patterns just won't go away.
I know this certainly happens to me a lot, and from talking to other creatives about their ups and downs in the industry, I know this is something many other people experience too.
But the more I thought about these comparative thoughts, the more I learned that there's two sides to the story. Comparing yourself can be a hugely disheartening thing to do, it can send you into art blocks, writing blocks, or life blocks. It can even sometimes put people off their practice forever. But it can also be utilised as a driving mechanism, a goal to reach and the realisation that yes you can get that good because other people have.
It's been something I've been thinking about a lot lately so I wanted to put it down into words to help myself better understand it and hopefully help others too.
The bad points and how to defeat them...
crolling through endless beautiful images in the name of 'inspiration'... but really all it's doing is bumming you out. How can I possibly get back to work when I've just seen what these other people are producing, how am I going to top that!?
The main thing to bear in mind is: you don't have to.
Despite the creative industries being maddeningly competitive fields, it doesn't mean that only the people at the very top of their game ever 'make it'. They had to start somewhere too. It's super important to remember that there's more than two stages, it's not just 'broke beginner' and 'highflier pro', there's this huuuge grey area in the middle full of the vast majority of creative practitioners. Even some of the people you may see as these 'highflier pros' would in fact see themselves as the grey area majority, worried about where they're going and if they'll ever even get there.
This acts as a small, but most welcome, comfort when I fall down the rabbit hole of jealousy and panic; simply knowing that so many other people were in the same boat as me helped me feel less like my efforts are futile.
Another thing that can sometimes really help me in moments like this is going back and looking at the progress you have made rather than worrying about the progress you've yet to make. Sure, it can feel like a bit of an ego boost, but sometimes that's what you need. A good, active way to do this is an exercise many illustrators and artists use in online communities which is 'draw this again'. Take an old drawing/image of yours from many years ago and, well, draw it again! I did one last year:
Considering the very gradual improvements you'll be making, you may not notice how much progress you've actually made in those few years until you see a stark contrast like this one. Like being away from a person for a long time and suddenly realising how much they've grown in that time, you wouldn't notice otherwise.
get especially frustrated with digital painting, mostly because of the incredible digital artists out there that I can't help but compare myself to all the time. It can be disheartening to see the sort of illustration they can produce with what seems like effortlessness. But when I repainted the 2011 image above to create the one on the left, I had a sense of optimism. I'm on the right track. I'm improving and drawing things I never thought I could draw in 2011.
t helped me see that I'll be thinking the same way in another four years after I do another redraw. Maybe I would have nailed atmospheric lighting, maybe I'll be better at loosening my brush strokes, all this stuff I get frustrated and fearful about now I might be decent at in the near future.
As well as looking at your own past work, pick a pro artist who inspires you, and try to find their old work too. Facebook and even the dreaded DeviantArt *gag* can be ideal places for this. They're less curated than the artists' websites and it's super easy to go waaay back and have a look at where they were five years ago. Again, this could feel like an ego boost and trying to get out of having to do any work, but if you're really down in the dumps by being barraged with constant gorgeous artwork that isn't your own, then it could help lift that cloud a bit.
It is super important to remember to do this in moderation though, and to combine it with what I'm going to talk about next...
The good points and how to utilise them...
Comparison and contrast aren't things to avoid like the plague. I know I just went on about how bad it can make you feel, but within creative practices there's this unfortunate but necessary drive; you can never feel good enough.
Before you panic, the keyword there is enough. You can never be good enough. The moment you feel like you're enough you will stop trying. You will stop improving, striving, and studying and you'll become stale; every artists nightmare. You can be good, absolutely you can be good, you can be amazing and you will be! But don't ever let yourself think that's enough. You must stretch for more, be greedy with yourself whilst being kind to yourself.
Instead of thinking: "Oh hell yeah that's amazing, I'll just keep doing this over and over again." replace that with: "Oh hell yeah that's amazing, how can I improve on it? Where can I take it now? Can I try this method too? What have other's done with this sort of thing? How can I get it to reach more people?"
The moment you start using the comparisons you make with others as a drive to strive for more, is the moment you'll notice your improvements go into warp speed. And this is exactly where comparisons can be utilised to help pull you forward.
But remember, just because your work has room to grow and progress it doesn't mean it isn't already good. You're not sub-par just because you can improve. People don't go from naff to pro in one drawing, it's a long, confusing, winding road and you're plodding your way along it, not sat at the beginning with lame work. Even if it feels like you are, the fact that you want your work to be better and you're still working on it means you're moving along this road. Even if your next drawing is shitty, you're still moving.
Looking and comparing with other artists' work can also help goals become achievable. As I waffled on about in this blog post, goals and hopes can sometimes feel intangible and tricky to visualise, they're more like a plume of weird smoke that you see and you know you want it but all you have to catch it is your hands. I don't know if you've ever tried catching smoke with your hands but it's tricky...
Looking at other work can make this goal seem real. Somebody else has managed to fight their way through the creative industry's nonsense and become a success, either business-wise or just self contentment, both are successes and both can be achieved. I know for me it was a real positive influence on my productivity. Being able to see that my dreams are plausible, it was like setting a target point rather than wandering aimlessly, hoping I stumble across something good. I had things to aim for. "I want to make my use of colour that well, I want to use white space that well, I want to do more social media campaigns like that". Not copying, not mirroring other people's successes, but using their success to fuel your own.
hat, for me, is the healthy way to compare yourself to others.
So there's good and bad things about comparing yourself. It's very hard to control which you feel when you do inevitably do it, but I've found that so long as I know it's not a horrible evil taboo to compare yourself, then it's easier to steer myself towards the good bits. Hopefully, the good bits, the inspiration and drive, will become more commonplace than the dread, worry, and feeling of inadequacy. You may not be able to defeat these bad bits completely (if you do then I'm 98% sure you're a robot and I want to speak to your maker and arrange an appointment to become a robot too) and that's ok. You chose to be an arty person, unfortunately mild mental anguish seems to come with the creative territory, but it doesn't need to be all the time, it certainly shouldn't be. Hopefully this can help you to steer towards the good things more often and use these comparisons to fuel your ambition and drive to become better, both in yourself and your career.