A writer emailed me a question the other day:
“The thing I struggle with most is the fear that my writing will stink. The fear comes from my tendency to compare my (theoretical) work with things I read, which tend to be classics — some of the best works ever created. I would enjoy any discussion related to this “tyranny of comparison” when it comes to writing.”
I hear versions of this a lot from writers and artists, including those who are very successful with their craft: “Is my writing good enough?” What I have found is that many (most?) people deal with this. Today let’s talk about how to move past the fear that your work isn’t good enough and how to better manage comparisonitis.
Dealing with Comparisonitis
Social media and the web can be wonderful tools to connect us. But they can also become an unending stream of “Wow, look at all of these amazing things that other people are doing! Hmmm. Maybe my work isn’t good enough compared to them.”
For a writer or artist, it is easy to scroll through social media and feel that there is so much great work out there, that perhaps there is no room left for what you create.
In truth, there is plenty of room for what you and your creative vision. The question you ask shouldn’t be “Is my work good enough?” But rather, “Is my work good enough for me to move forward and grow as a person and a writer?”
Because that journey happens one step at a time.
I try to dig into this topic with successful creators I speak to in my podcast. When I interviewed illustrator and writer Meera Lee Patel, I asked her if she deals with comparisonitis. She replied: “It is an absolute daily struggle… you have to push it aside and make the work you want to make.”
It’s worth noting that Meera’s work is incredible and she is able to make a full-time living as a writer and illustrator. I highly recommend her books:
- My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown
- Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration
- Made Out of Stars: A Journal for Self-Realization
One of my favorite quotes from a writer talking about the success and the creative process comes from Dani Shapiro:
“Not only does it not get any easier, it actually gets harder.”
What she means is that we hope that success makes creating easier. That the validation of being a bestselling author removes the doubt that we may feel in our work.
But that isn’t what happens. She continues:
“There isn’t one single piece of writing that I have done in the last 20 years, that did not begin with my thinking, “Here goes nothing, this time this is not going to work. Whether it’s a book review, an essay, a blog post, or a book. That feeling that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here.”
I highly recommend her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, plus her newest book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, is another bestseller for her.
No One Knows What Will Work
I watch a lot of music documentaries. What astounds me is how often a song will be created, and everyone will say, “This just doesn’t work. No one is going to like it. You shouldn’t even release it.”
But then it does get released, and it goes on to be a massive hit.
Some examples of this I have heard recently from the music world:
- Jack White tells the story of the moment he created the riff for his song “Seven Nation Army.” You may not know the song, but you will have heard this riff. This is the moment he created it: My friend Ben was with me at and I wrote the riff for Seven Nation Army. I said, “What do you think of this?” Ben said (in a disinterested dismissive voice), “Meh, it’s okay.”
- In the middle of a 4-hour documentary I watched about Tom Petty, he talked about the moment his longtime drummer started to move away from the band. The drummer just wasn’t feeling good about the new songs, and chose not to play on the recording session for the next song they were doing. It turns out that song was “Free Falling,” which went on to become one of their biggest songs.
- In the 1970s, Meatloaf and his band had recorded the album “Bat Out of Hell,” and it was rejected by every record label. No one wanted anything to do with it. It took more than a year, but they finally got a record deal, and it went on to sell more than 40 million copies.
This is why I study the career paths of successful writers and artists. Their journeys are filled with unbelievable stories. Did you know that after NBC had developed the show Seinfeld, they decided it didn’t work. They offered to simply give the show to the Fox network free of charge. Fox said no!
If you are looking down at the page of what you just wrote and thinking to yourself, “I love this, but I just don’t think anyone else will,” please remember that this feeling is a natural part of the creative process. They key to success is to keep going.
The Only Failure is if You Don’t Create
The most important thing is that you continue to create. You continue to improve your craft. You continue to share your work. Here is some advice on how to move through the fear that your creative work isn’t good enough:
- Develop your creative practice. Don’t judge your work constantly, instead double-down on how much time and energy you can put into it. Create more. Create often.
- Share your work. The more you hide your work from the world, the more likely you are to feel that your work isn’t ready, isn’t good enough, and that they only way to ensure it will succeed later on is to hide it right now. Share your work. Austin Kleon has a great book that digs into this: Show Your Work! Oh, I have a book on this topic too! Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience.
- You need colleagues. Don’t isolate yourself. Knowing other creators will keep your anxieties at bay because you have a support system. This is something that nearly every professional writer and artist I speak to has. It’s also the reason I have spent years developing my Creative Shift Mastermind program, to help writers develop meaningful connections to other creators, and me!
Yesterday I was watching a guitar instructional video with John Mayer. He was illustrating how he had done his own cover version of a famous song. He ended it by saying, “Being a guitar player, we all think we can pick up someone’s style and be just like them. But we can’t. We are our own little bad imitation of it. You are not good enough to sound like Jeff Beck. Instead, you are good enough to sound like you, but with a little of that Jeff Beck flavor in it.”
I’ll end with one of my favorite videos of all time, about the value of investing in your own unique creative vision. It’s a video that is less than 2 minutes, that I must have watched hundreds of times over the years.