Image by Natalie Ex via natalieex.com.
Comparing ourselves to others can be a waste of valuable time; an activity that throws creatives down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole, leading to fear and even depression.
ArtsHub spoke with artists from a broad range of disciplines, asking them where they believe our tendency to do this stems from and the best strategies for stopping such behaviour.
Understand the motivation
Having a better understanding of why we compare ourselves to others can help to determine why we’re doing it and hopefully give us a reason to stop, said Sara Mansour, Artistic Director of the Bankstown Poetry Slam.
‘If you are comparing yourself to others, firstly ask yourself what is your intention? And secondly, ask what is the desired outcome? I think most times we do this out of instinct and not because it really adds any value to the how and why of your art form.’
Forget your influences
‘While I do love collaborative creative spaces, I think it’s really important to be able to go and work alone, free from opinion and influence so you can really develop your creative identity,’ said Bianca Vallentine, homewares designer and founder of the Vallentine Project.
‘Comparison is a fairly natural part of doing anything – we all do it, but the key is to recognise when it’s a healthy comparison and when it’s not.’
Hone your style
Establishing your own creative identity is a more productive use of time than comparing yourself to other artists, said Natalie Ex, a freelance designer, illustrator and DJ.
‘Having a recognisable style seems to be a positive in this industry. I feel like if you’re comparing yourself to others, perhaps you would start trying to mimic them and not be able to focus on perfecting your own unique style,’ she said.
Embrace your peers
At the beginning of his career, writer Benjamin Law said he constantly compared himself to others, but as he established relationships with other creatives, the need for competitive analysis stopped.
‘I think I spent my entire twenties comparing myself to other people. But being in a city like Brisbane helped – the writing community is so tight that you very quickly cease seeing other people as competition, because they’re genuinely your mates and community,’ Law said.
‘You can’t survive long as an artist or writer without help and support, and I quickly understood that it was important to help and support others.’
Track your success
Kate Usher, Curator of Brisbane’s Supercell Dance Festival, said writing down your achievements and looking for areas of improvement can help to reduce anxiety, giving you a sense of control about where you’re at career-wise.
‘I am a journal freak and believe in “reflective practices,”’ Usher said.
‘Acknowledge what you kicked butt at and also own the things you could do better and improve. No one expects perfection!’
‘Why compare and view other creatives as competition when you can work with them?’ Ex suggested. ‘I’ve found collaborations to be super inspiring and an excellent way to learn new things, make new friends and broaden your networks.’
Being able to evaluate what sets off our need for comparison is important in learning to curb such behaviours, said Vallentine.
‘Certain people and places might not bring out your best creativity and so it’s important to recognise what your triggers are and avoid them – or embrace them if that’s the kind of work you want to create.’
Forget social media
For Rachel Smith, freelance writer and founder of the arts job site Rachels List, social media became a danger zone which fuelled social comparison.
‘I’ve found, especially in the past couple of years when I’ve been invited into a lot of Facebook groups, that the urge to compare is a lot more rife,’ Smith admits.
‘People present their best selves and talk about their “wins” and if you’re feeling insecure, it can definitely affect your confidence. That’s not great when you work for yourself and a lot of what you do relies on projecting an image of success and a rock-solid belief in yourself. If it’s really affecting you, I’d take a step back. I think it affects our moods and mindset more than we want to admit.’
Share knowledge, even as a freelancer
‘When I was first freelancing, there was this belief that because everyone was in constant competition, you were best to keep your cards close to your chest around other freelancers,’ said Smith.
‘There was a lot of comparison, a lot of worry about people who got better jobs than you did, more writing commissions, their pitches over the line (every time). But I actually think isolating yourself makes you more paranoid and even more likely to compare and become miserable about how you “stack up”.’
The time we waste on comparisons with our peers is fruitless and better spent on career-building, said Law.
‘Get busy! In the arts, there’s too much work to do to spend mental energy manufacturing anxieties that needn’t exist. So concentrate, knuckle down and get to work. And remember, everyone’s a potential friend, collaborator or ally. See your peers as those things, first and foremost.’
Turn anxiety into ambition
For the Sydney-based performer, writer and producer Maeve Marsden, comparison in the arts is something inevitable. But if you approach it from a different mindset, it can bring positivity.
‘I am constantly comparing myself to others. You’d have to be the most confident woman in the world not to when our industry is so competitive,’ Marsden said.
‘Sometimes I try to look at other artists’ work and let it inspire me to be better, rather than allowing it to make me feel worse.’
Often you’ll find everyone feels the same, she added. ‘When I get the chance to meet and speak with artists I look up to, I find out they have similar fears and anxieties.’
Remember, every career is different
‘Everyone has a unique path that is made up of so many different things and this makes it impossible to fairly compare yourself to anyone,’ said Penelope Benton, a multidisciplinary artist and General Manager of the National Association of Visual Art (NAVA).
‘It’s important to keep perspective. It’s too easy to compare the best bits of someone’s career with the worst parts of your own.’
Seek a mentor
‘I think that by focusing on yourself, managing your own expectations, and having a great mentor (or getting one if you haven’t already!) you can start to look beyond comparisons that add no value,’ said Mansour.
‘Working with a mentor can be a great way to start collaborating with artists you admire, instead of getting stuck in the cycle of comparison.’
Read: How to find a mentor
Get a therapist
Anxiety from social comparisons can start to wear you down and if it’s really beginning to affect your life and impact your work, it’s best to seek help, Marsden suggests.
‘You don’t have to be right on the edge to benefit from therapy, and in an industry that often has negative impacts on people’s mental health, I think it’s a really valuable investment in your wellbeing,’ she said.
‘My mental health is generally pretty good, but I started seeing a therapist a year or so ago because my anxiety was getting unmanageable just as my career was progressing in a positive direction. I thought it wasn’t right that the more opportunities I got, the more stressed and anxious I became.’
Find your unique offering
Finally, look at what you’ve got that will set you apart from all the other writers, designers, performers, painters or musicians that you know.
‘The perception and pedestal of success is relative to so many other things,’ Benton said.
‘No one has everything, but we all have something. Focus on that. The something that you do have. What can you do with it?’