Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the uncharted waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about how to halt the negative cycle of comparing yourself to others.
Q. How do I stop feeling like a failure?
It’s long been said that failure is an important part of growth — a learning experience that is necessary for continuing to move forward with your practice. This is true, and as an educator I have to constantly make my students appreciate that without the insight of making bad work, they can never make great work. Failure can be valuable, but failure is not the goal, it is not something to strive for, it is not the point — it is merely a byproduct of trying new things, taking risks, and learning.
And that brings us to an important point: failure is useful, but feeling like a failure is not. In today’s world, feeling like a failure is incredibly easy; one of the worst parts of the internet in general and social media in particular is the accessibility of people you look up to. The people you admire online may be more established than you, and the ease of being on social media makes comparing your accomplishments to theirs almost effortless.
Enjoy the connections the internet offers you, but don’t let them get in the way of your own development. You are you. You are not someone else, and one of the most destructive things you can do as a creative professional is to constantly compare your work to theirs, your accomplishments to theirs, and your recognition to theirs. Having heroes is fine, and paying attention to people you admire is healthy and can be a nice motivation or inspiration. Feeling miserable about yourself because you have not done the same things in the same way with the same popularity as your heroes is a toxic habit that you must try to stop. They all started somewhere, they have all had good projects and bad projects, they have all felt like failures and felt like successes — just like you.
And then, there is “impostor syndrome,” which is something else that has been exacerbated by the connectedness of the internet. I don’t think of impostor syndrome as a syndrome, I think of it as simply part of the human condition. Everybody — even the superstar — feels like an impostor at one time or another (and most people — including the superstar — feel like impostors often). This is not a bad thing, and leaning into the idea of approaching creative practice as an impostor can be beneficial — you are coming at something with fresh eyes, and may see things the seasoned “experts” might not.
Indeed, design is an abstract profession that mostly exists in the gray area of opinion and interpretation, rather than hard truths and simple facts. Not knowing exactly what you are doing is a gift because there are no absolute “right” answers, and this is what makes design incredibly interesting. There is a reason why it’s called a “creative practice,” instead of a “creative know-exactly-how-to-do-it-perfectly.”