Michael Lucas recently shared an article on the Fediverse entitled Business Musings: Comparison is the Thief of Joy that resonated with me. I've been working with comparing myself to others and finding myself lacking for a while now, but having a short and effective phrase to remind me of this is very helpful, especially when I'm in the process of such comparisons. It's interesting to me how much I have internalized such comparisons and I wondered where it came from. The earliest memories I have are the usual position-jockeying that happens among kids in school. In many ways we begin to believe those taunts, quips, and put-downs as somehow being prescient about our status in the world and about our work.
In some ways it's also reinforced by the teachers we have. I remember one art teacher that we had in 6th or 7th grade. She didn't care for me for some reason (possibly because of my parents. I'm not quite sure.) and I felt she graded me harshly compared with the other students. One assignment was to draw a comic strip. I drew a comic "in media res" much like the Mary Worth or Prince Valiant comics with just 6 panels set in the world of Tron. It gave a bit of what happened thus far, moved the action ever so slightly, and then ended on a minor cliff-hanger. I drew the best that I could and poured myself into the task. I thought for sure I would get a good grade. We had some other artists in the class whom I competed with (several of them were quite good at drawing) but mine was clever. I don't think anyone else had tried to do something dramatic. When I got the assignment back I was crestfallen. The teacher didn't give me a good grade on the assignment because it "wasn't funny". I didn't think I needed to be funny. Nowhere in the assignment was the expectation that it needed to be "funny". Even the students that I showed the work agreed that I had executed the assignment well, but that little bit of meeting an arbitrary and unstated desire for "funny" really put me off. That I'm still somewhat salty about an assignment that is old enough to have a mid-life crisis of its own tells you how salty I am about the whole thing. But that also highlights how much we compared ourselves to others in the classroom. I thought I had done was well as my peers and was (in my mind) arbitrarily penalized for not adding a dash of "funny" to a comic assignment.
I still bring comparison to my work, thinking that I need to be pushing out publisher-grade materials when I haven't a clue how to do layout, or creating expert code without having taken the time to do it. I feel I should practice more but then I think well, if you're already sucking at this then what's the point?". I look at designs from folks that have created designs for over 20+ years professionally and wonder why I can't spit out such beauty after having read about these designs for 10+ years (with no actual design work behind it).
Comparison is the thief of joy.
Spending our time looking over our shoulders at what others are doing robs us of the beauty of our own work and our own perspective. It stifles our creativity and makes us believe that we're somehow defective in what we're doing. We feel as though we're not measuring up to whatever impossible standards we've created and wonder if this is something worth pursing. It robs us of the most precious creative gift: the gift of joy that comes while creating. It stifles that spark that comes whenever we bring something of ourselves into the world.
I still struggle with this but I've gotten better about it. Trying to please everyone with our work is impossible, and trying to measure up to arbitrary standards we've put upon our work denies us our unique potential. We need to give ourselves permission to just create in whatever way we can and stop worrying about whether it pushes the art or will get a good grade. Just do the best we can in the moment and revise it later if necessary. And if someone decides that the work in front of them isn't what they expected then it wasn't for them. I know I did my best for my art teacher, and her grade gets to live on as an anecdote in a blog post and a teachable moment for others.