I still struggle with self-doubt.
If I had been able to see where I am now five years ago, I would smack myself and say “quit doubting yourself” and enjoy it. If I think about myself five years from now, I’ll probably look back and say the same thing: Andy, man, that was a great time. And yet, self-doubt is an insidious voice that keeps returning. So, here’s a list of 10 reminders to help pick yourself up off the floor and encourage you to keep trying and keep on making stuff.
1. Destroy Your Collection of Put-Downs
Your ego collects every put-down you’ve received. I can remember searing comments I read online, received through email or even heard uttered over a beer. When it’s time to buckle down and work, I open that vault and it cripples me with self-doubt; all the reasons why what I do doesn’t matter.
You need to trash that collection—set it on fire. Instead, start a new collection of put-ups. Start collecting reasons why you do what you do, why it matters. Instead of remembering the put-downs, when it’s time to work, summon those put-ups.
2. Don’t Worry About Whether What You Make is “Art”
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” – Andy Warhol
Don’t sit around worrying whether what you’re doing is “art,” whether it measures up to whatever standard that is, or if you’re making stuff to put on Instagram that makes you cheap. The people we remember from 50 years ago were not considered groundbreaking in their time.
I’m not saying awards are bad or prestige is wrong. But I am saying that by the time there’s a board of directors deciding what’s good and what’s bad, by the time there’s a ceremony celebrating that art, that moment in time has already started to pass. So forget about the whole “art” question and just make.
3. Everyone Will Forget Your Fumbles
No matter what happens to you, whatever slander and hatred comes your way, the internet’s going to forget. If that moment is excruciating, that will be all it is. Instead, keep making stuff and keep improving until it gets good enough to get on people’s radar and connect. Those times you flounder will be forgotten if you keep forging ahead.
Here’s where to focus instead: ensure what you’re making gets seen and used. Take your work to the people who want it in the manner they want to consume it. If that’s social media, be there. Don’t judge the people who want your work or how they want to access it. Just bring it to them.
4. Be Even Less Original
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” – Jim Jarmusch
I can guarantee you’re not original. Even if you’re the best, you’re still an amalgamation of many influences. As you filter them through your experiences and experiments, you will get closer and closer to “your voice”—to something that is uniquely you.
One thing that’s going to keep you from your unique voice is that you’re taking too little influence. Instead of shying away from influence, dive super duper deep.
Instead of shying away from influence, dive super duper deep.
5. Repeat After Me: “I Will Fail”
We have this startup culture talking about “fail fast”—failure being good. Let me tell you this: Failure is necessary, but it is excruciating. When you fail, you will not think “good. I failed! I’m right on track.” You will think “oh my gosh, everything is coming to an end.”
But if you’re doing anything that matters and is meaningful, you will fail. Guaranteed. So when that voice of self-doubt comes up and says “what if I fail?” respond with “what if I don’t fail? What if I make work that doesn’t matter?”
The alternative is copying what’s already been done and proven. A worse fear is “what if I never fail because I never tried to make anything meaningful?”
6. Forget Destiny and Develop Your Abilities
Dr. Carol Dweck found that the number 1 factor for success is believing your talent, intellect and ability has the capacity for growth. That it’s not fixed. If you believe your talent and your intelligence is fixed, you’re going to be prideful and defensive, and you’re going to do whatever you can to prove that you have what it takes.
But if you believe that you’ve got the ability to grow infinitely, you won’t have to defend yourself.
Build upon your natural innate abilities, talents and strengths. If you’re unsure what they are, go take the strengths-finder test. I believe you have the ability to way do more than you can imagine.
7. Embrace the Hot & Cold Game
I see the commercial creative pursuit as a giant game of hot and cold. I can tell you that 8 years ago when I started off, I was ICE COLD. And today I am getting so much warmer. I’ve experienced exhilaration in my work in the last year that I’ve never experienced in my entire life.
This hot and cold game is meant to calm that voice that says “what if you’re going the wrong way?” If you suspect you’re going the wrong way, the answer is “maybe” but let’s collect enough data on this to find out. Plus, the worst guesses ended up giving me information that was necessary to get me to where I am today.
8. Yep, You *Are* an Imposter
You probably are an imposter, especially when you start out.
It’s like being a parent: Before you bring home a kid from the hospital, you’re like “why didn’t they give us a test? We have no idea what we’re doing.” It’s frightening. But one day you’re putting diapers on backwards and the next day you’re making Dad jokes.
So when that voice comes along and says you’re an imposter, they’re probably right, but you’re going to keep working on it until you’re not.
9. Embrace the Long Game
If you’re asking yourself what if this doesn’t go anywhere, what if it doesn’t pay off, what if nobody cares? Go ahead and answer, yeah it probably won’t. The thing you’re working on is probably not going to have that big of an impact. It won’t be the lottery ticket that changes your life. You have to do it for reasons other than the response to this one thing.
I have never gone viral. This podcast, my social following, my income and illustration work have all grown slowly and steadily. I don’t have any awards. So when that voice comes along and says this piece is probably not going to mean anything or not going to pay off. I say, yeah, probably not. But these next 15 pieces will take me somewhere.
10. Simply Be Good
Nobody wants to see your diploma if your work is incredible. Creativity’s not a pure meritocracy, but you can work hard to be so good they won’t be able to ignore you.
Creativity’s not a pure meritocracy, but you can work hard to be so good they won’t be able to ignore you.
Seth Godin says that everything worth doing has moats. Some of those moats are natural—if you want to be a painter, you gotta learn the technical stuff. Some of the moats, however, are man made because the people in the castle don’t want you in there.
When that voice comes saying you don’t have the credentials, you didn’t come from the right place or family, or your life isn’t Instagram pretty, that causes you to disqualify yourself. Try to recognize it as a man-made moat. Then, know that being so good is the bridge that will get you across that moat.
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about the author
Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.