I’ve spent some time in a previous post talking about failure and criticism, but there’s a very specific kind of criticism I wanted to focus on separately today: comparing yourself or your work to others.
Where to start…
As an artist in any medium, internal criticism can drive you to be better and to make something better. It can help you produce your best work… but it could also just be a spiral of self-doubt that causes you to stop moving forward and results in you stopping the thing you love out of fear that it’ll never be good enough.
I generally feel that a lot of internal criticism comes from comparing ourselves and our work to some golden standard. “My work doesn’t look or sound like that, therefore it’s not good enough.” But, you know, all that great art you love? It’s not often produced by a single mind.
Comics are often drawn by one person, colored by another, and are probably written by someone else entirely. Let’s not forget the editors and publishers involved in that process either.
Novels are written by one person, sure. But those commercially successful ones probably also have an editor, an agent for the author, a publisher, and a marketing team. Oh and if there is artwork involved, that’s usually a different person.
Music takes a team of people to get done. Sure there’s the artist you know and love but that person is just the image of a whole team of people. You can have a lyricist, one person for each of those instruments, a mixing engineer, a mastering engineer, and that’s just to get started.
Next time you watch any movie, take a look at the credits. Sure, the actor gets all the praise and money, but there are hundreds of people behind that actor making the movie happen. Too many people for me to bother listing here.
The point is, every commercially successful thing has a team of people behind it that are generally invisible to you and, as a result, it becomes unfair to compare yourself to that level of success. And even if you think you’re doing stuff on your own, there are still teams of people behind you somewhere. There’s a team of people behind that distribution service you use to get your music onto streaming platforms. There’s a team running Bandcamp. There’s a team running this WordPress server so I don’t have to worry about it.
In the end, I can’t do everything myself but as an independent artist, I can’t afford to work with other people. I’m just not profitable enough to pay or well connected enough to ask for favors.
That brings me to two points:
- You have to pick and choose how you spend your limited resources.
- You can’t compare yourself to a whole team of people.
I’ll come back to that first item in some future post. As for the second item – yeah, you have to always remind yourself that your point of comparison is probably unfair. Even with all the musical talent in the world, you might not necessarily understand sound engineering or marketing or some other seemingly random thing you’re going to end up working on.
What do I do? Well… comparison is a necessary evil. If I never listened to other music or never aspired to be like one of those established greats, then I wouldn’t have any place to aim my ambition. So, I still compare myself to established artists and sometimes that does lead to a lot of self-doubt. I think that what I’m doing isn’t good enough and never will be but when I feel it coming – or hear those words in my head – I try to put a stop to it. I remind myself of what I said a few blog entries ago: My music, my art, and my life will never be perfect but it doesn’t need to be. Also, I remind myself that I can’t expect to get better if I give up.
Really, you can never be great if you stop before you are good.
Once I accept that, I take a moment to compare where I am now to where I was 3 months, 6 months, or even 12 months ago. A year ago, making music was just something that maybe I would get to eventually and I knew nothing about. Three to six months ago, I was working on trying to make an album of music but focused on just how it sounded. After that, I started focusing on learning about all the things related to music theory, music production, and music marketing. I’ve taken on a number of challenges and am working multiple projects to get more music out into the world.
None of my current success would have been possible without taking that first step: accepting that I’m not one of the greats but I’ll never make it there without trying, practicing, and putting forth a ton of effort.
Today, I only move forward.
P.S. Something else that can help you is to search for inspiration. I find it in a lot of places but, there’s this guy, Charles Cleyn, that I stumbled upon some months back on Youtube because of his Logic Pro tutorials. What I love about him is his story of how he got into music and the personal videos he shares about his own growth. You can learn more about Charles’ story at his site or on youtube. It reminds me, in some ways, of my own life and probably most importantly: you don’t have to start doing this at a certain time in your life, you just need to start.