Let Go of Comparison

One thing that kills our creativity is this constant urge to compare ourselves with others. We look at those who experience success in our field of work or are doing similar things as we are—with envy. We look at the masters who have developed their skills over a lifetime and feel that in comparison our attempts completely suck. And opposite; we might even be terrified to stand out from the crowd.

It so easy to be sucked into a downward spiral of “feeling not good enough”. Then we lose steam and get discouraged. And even if you aren’t completely dispirited, just the fact that this kind of comparison makes you insecure about your own creative skills, causes you to not be the best you could be. Instead of focusing on your work and feeling good about what you produce, you get sidetracked worrying about what other people might think.

In worst of all cases, someone might think that he or she lack creativity completely. Everyone acknowledge that certain skills, like playing the piano, take years of training. But a common misperception is that you are either good at something or not at all, particularly when it comes to creative expressions. Just think about how many who blatantly state that they cannot draw, they don’t have the talent, and yet have never put in the energy and time it takes to become skilled at it. Remember? As kids we could all draw.

I believe every single one of us have inherent creative capacity. It’s just that too many decide they don’t, without even trying. The main culprit for this: They compare themselves of today with those who are better, not with whom they can become.

Creativity has many elements that work together to push our imagination and desire into new directions. As such, there are many ways in which we can encourage creativity. One way to embrace creativity is to let go of comparison. If you are concerned about conforming or about how you measure up to other’s success, you won’t perform the risk taking and trailblazing inherent in the creative process.

Take skiing, which is something I know well, since I have done it all my life. Most of us accept that when we are learning a new sport like skiing, we will fall down, and other skiers on the slope will see us with our faces planted in the snow. But when it comes to creative work, we tend to freeze up. And not just when we are novices. With people who are skilled in something, perfectionism can be every bit as crippling as a lack of confidence in nonskilled.

Since I am writing about skiing, take myself: Although I am a pretty skilled skier, I still hate skiing under lifts or chairs. Others might see me fall or do something stupid! I know it’s dim, isn’t it, but even if I know, it’s hard to defuse this internal reaction.

Wherever you fall on the artistic skill curve, half the battle is to resist judging yourself. For a photographer, if you can raise the camera without caring about others, your are halfway there. Take baby steps, as I wrote in me post Incremental Progress a couple of weeks ago. Walk up to that stranger on the street and just start taking photographs. Don’t think about what others might think. And show you photos to others without thinking what they may think. Then do it again. I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it can be as long as you take that first step—in whatever it is you don’t dare to do because you are afraid of what other may say. More so, you will be surprised how good it feels afterwards.

Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

Throughout our lives, forces can push us toward or away from reaching our creative potential: a teacher’s compliment, a parent’s tolerance for tinkering, or an environment that welcomes new ideas. What matters most in the end, though, is this: your belief in your capacity to creative positive change and the courage to take action. Creativity, far from requiring rare gifts and skills, depends on what you believe what you can do with the talents and skills you already have. And you can develop and build on those skills, talents, and beliefs. After all, Hungarian essayist György Konrád once said, “Courage is only accumulation of small steps.”

Let me send you off with a last quote, this one by Nelson Mandela (and thanks to Through Rose Tinted Glasses that made me aware of it): “I learned that courage was not absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

So go out there and create, not fearlessly, but by conquering all those fears that comparison may raise. And most of all, conquer that urge to compare yourself with others.

78 thoughts on “Let Go of Comparison

  1. Great post. Too often I can relate to most of it and need to kick myself from getting into bad mental habits. I also really like this line, “They compare themselves of today with those who are better, not with whom they can become.” That’s important for all of us to remember no matter what level we’re at. Nice to see your playful side in this photo 🙂

  2. Really inspiring post. One thing that strikes me is that not all my creations are my best. Creating is experimenting and not all of it works out right. I get discouraged because of this expectation from my peers and it is hard to live up to. And yes, it is a very frightening experience not to judge yourself at this point.

    1. I we see most of our creating as sketches instead of something that will become an end product. That makes it much easier to accept all which doesn’t turn out as master pieces. We use everything we learn in the next thing we create or sketch, and then every so often something comes up that we can feel good about ourselves.

  3. I am guilty of looking at others work and comparing. I think it’s human nature, and I just have to shake it off and continue on my own personal creative path.

    1. It’s definitely human nature to compare, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a good human trait. I think it’s quite OK to look at others work, to enjoy and learn from it, rather than for comparing with oneself.

  4. It’s reassuring to hear that even an experienced skier like you hates skiing under the chair-lifts! Many years ago a friend reassured me that most of the people on the lift were too engaged in the scenery, or talking with friends, or the anticipation of their own run down the hill to notice the novice (me) face-down in the snow. And so it is with creative endeavors: Raising our camera may feel momentous to us, but to most of the people around us we’re just another tourist/pedestrian/man/student on the street. Also love your thoughts on comparing ourselves to those who are better — a pitfall I’m keenly aware of as I’m studying calligraphy. I’m trying to focus on what I can learn from the master who has been doing it for 50 years, instead of worrying about how wretched I am compared to her. A little envy can be a good thing if it awakens our curiosity (“How did she do that?”) and encourages us to push our own skills a bit. As you can see, you’ve given me much to think about! Thank you for another wonderful, insightful post, Otto.

    1. I know so well that most people on the chair-lift don’t even care about me when I ski below them. Still it’s hard to get that thought out of the system. You approach to calligraphy seems to be good on many levels. Keep learning and time will eventually turn you into a master as well. 🙂

  5. I started my photography journey in 1989 with a college course that included developing prints in a dark room (anyone remember those?) I switched to digital in 1999 and bought my first DSLR in 2006. I have been working at this craft for 30 years and though I can see that my skills have improved, I am just not happy with the results.

    I often feel inadequate when I compare myself to other phiotographers. I know it’s a destructive and discouraging habit. This blog post left me with much to ponder. I shall be doing some intense introspection this week to find ways to slay this “monster”.

    1. Go gentle with yourself. 🙂 As far as I have seen on your site there is nothing inadequate about your photography. But I know the feeling, I for one, have to fight it too. It’s not very productive, though, so I try to expand my photography by doing something I haven’t done before. For me learning is a lifelong process. (And yes, I do remember all too well those darkrooms).

  6. Wonderful, inspiring post! My favorite line:
    “They compare themselves of today with those who are better, not with whom they can become.”
    Thanks Otto! 🙂

  7. Yep I struggle with this sometimes. I have to limit my viewing of others work for a time now and then to get myself back on track. Feelings of inadequacy don’t help one’s creative drive!

  8. Thank you Otto, for writing down what so much of us experience every day. I sometimes am paralyzed when I am compared to others. Your words give me right now the courage to continue. Once again, thx

  9. A great encouraging essay. Every has different learning curves. I have heard more than once, the persons were told that they were not good at certain thing then they turned to be very good at that. That is quite a contrary.

  10. Okay. You’ve inspired me to take a new approach. When I pick up the camera I must channel my skis. I’m rarely intimidated on skis. Well, maybe just enough to stay out of serious trouble, but skiing the chair line never worries me. I know most of those riding over my head wouldn’t even try it, so I don’t care what the rest of them think. So be it. 😉

    1. I know that most aren’t noticing me, and I am working with the inhibiting feeling that they are. But I think it’s a great idea to channel you skis when you pick up the camera. 🙂

  11. Great post (as always), Otto.

    I’m one of those people who is their own worst critic. Its only when I search, or Google, other photographers (in whatever genre I’m working on at that minute) that I realise I’ve made some good images over the years of my Photography hobby.

    I think we all suffer from this unwillingness to take the plunge and try out something new at some time in our lives. It’s not just creative endeavours.

    I’m very good at encouraging others though.

    At the moment, having to upload images from my archives to take the place of lack of new images, is the hardest. I see that the focus is not sharp enough. The really old images are too dark, or too bright, or some other fault.

    The reality is that photography, like any other creative pursuit is about expressing yourself. Your vision. Your style. It actually doesn’t matter if you’re good, bad or absolutely hopeless. What matters is that you’ve taken the plunge and done it. You’ve shared your vision, abstract or reality.

    The quote at the top of my own B & W blog says it all………. “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”………………….George Elliot

    1. You are so right, photography, as any other creative outlet, is about expressing oneself. And to be true to oneself. If you are, it really doesn’t matter at what level you are. Thanks for the quote by George Elliot. It’s an excellent one.

  12. Wise words as always. I have found that many who pass critical comment on an other persons work, do so from their own perceived view off how things ‘should be’ done and fail to see that there sometimes many other viewpoints. There is also that other often quoted comment that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. There is also a fine line between technical excellence and artistic flair. But for me the underlying benefit for the individual is to have fun….enjoy. 🙂

    1. You are right, with both perspective. Of course, when I organize workshops I do give feedback on participants’ photos, and it will necessarily have to be from my point of view. But at least I try to see qualities other than what I stand for myself and encourage any individual approach that differs from mine. But in the end, it’s really about for each and everyone to enjoy photographing or whatever their creative expression is, as you poignantly point out.

  13. This is an important encouragement, Otto, and I totally believe it to be true. I think comparison to others takes a huge toll from personal creative expression, and really, negatively affects living well as a whole. I think this is one of the concerns I’ve heard from some people as they talk about social media. They feel “less than” because they are comparing their lives to their friends who post vacations or accomplishments they envy. I don’t really relate to that, but hearing it form others has made me feel sorry that they aren’t more secure in their own skin. I think having a healthy eye on comparison is a good thing if it encourages us to reach a bit, and maybe inspire, but never to add to the burden of feeling we are lacking something. Great post, Otto.

    1. Like with everything in life, social media has a positive as well as a negative side to it. The different platforms provide a range of ways to stay in touch with peers and get inspired by others, but it’s also easy to get sucked into comparing oneself with others. And, of course, you are right, comparison can be used in an encouraging way, if you are able to learn from others. Too often, though – which I know from myself at least – we end up feeling inferior to what others have been able to create. Thank you for your poignant point of view, Debra.

  14. Well said Otto! Perhaps a certain amount of comparison is necessary when learning the craft. I believe doing photography or any other kind of work takes practice … just like learning a musical instrument. You don’t take up clarinet one day and try out for the orchestra the next! I have been doing and practicing for a long time! As we become more satisfied and confident, and believe in our work, comparison becomes irrelevant.

    1. We certainly can learn from others, but it’s not very helpful to compare oneself with others if it only leads to lower self esteem. But it does take a long time to master whatever it is you are getting yourself into, that is my point, exactly.

  15. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else in terms of ego, I agree. As with almost everything, there will always be folks who are better than you, and you’ll likely be better than others. It’s best to just accept that, and not obsess about not being the best. On the other hand, if there is someone whose work you admire, it might be worth comparing to see what you can learn from them.

    1. As mentioned a couple times already, I do agree with you in that we certainly should look to others and learn from them. Whether I would call that comparison or not, is a different matter. 🙂

  16. We’re all familiar with the problem! I think that, as teachers/critical friends, we may be able to help by showing the constructive use of comparisons, i.e., isolating particular problems or aspects and examining how experienced artists have approached a similar situation. Breaking the problem down is crucially important.

  17. there are only a couple people that i compare myself unfavorably with, and frankly i DO take that as a sign that i could be as good as them if i tried. good post, Otto!

  18. Oh yes. I tend to compare myself a lot…and when friends say something like ‘that’s a photo that could win a competition’ and they send me links to the site where I should post it, I’d go and look at the best nature shots at Nat Geo … and not send my shot to the competition. But I also know that hard work pays off in the long run…getting better ever so slowly is also rewarding.

    1. As it is rewarding – and the only way to get better. I am certainly biased about competitions, because they will only reflect a jury’s taste or take and absolutely not any definitive truth about the photos entered in the competition.

  19. As usual great advice Otto, there’s something we all have that possible we are the best at it, but it may be something nobody cares, or we think it’s not important, doing things outside our field of expertise it’s always a challenge, and something we have to put a lot of effort, and can be easily discouraged, and feel that sense of worthlessness.
    Our worst critic it’s ourselves, so your advice is great Otto. 🙂

    1. You are probably right, that we all have something that we might be best at, but even if not, the important thing is to be able to enjoy what we do and life in general. Talking ourselves down, by being our own worst critic is going to help at all. Thanks for you poignant comment.

  20. What an excellent discussion, Otto. Everyone can benefit from thinking about creativity, the fact that we all have it, what it is and what it isn’t, etc. I think that even when it comes to comparing ourselves to others, it’s more a matter of fear being the problem than the comparing – if you can compare yourself to someone else without fear and ego creeping in, then you can learn from them and better yourself, but once fear overtakes and separation intrudes (me vs. them) it’s not going to go well. That photo is insane!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Fear is an underlying force in so much negativity around creativity (and much other, too). If we could rid ourselves of fear, comparing ourselves with others would indeed be no problem. Great comment, Lynn.

  21. Another meaningful post, Otto. Thank you for your insight and encouraging words. You are so right, creativity is with us all. And we should leave no room for fear to creep in. Great quote from Alison by the way.

  22. So very true Otto and as the saying goes “comparison is the thief of joy” or in the case of your post creativity. I don’t think social media has helped either. I think we all have a tendency to compare but there really is room for everyone to shine isn’t there. Great post

    1. There is definitely a doubled edged side to the social media. Thank you for the quote, which is by Theodore Roosevelt by the way (just checked it on internet). Maybe I even like your suggestion better. “Comparison is the thief of creativity.”

  23. So true! There are so many skilled photographers and photoshop artists out there that I am guilty of comparing myself to others. As you state this has stifled my creativity and caused me not to reach for my goals. I always think my photographs could be better edited (I hardly edit any Bertie and Croc shots) but at the end of the day I also like the purity of the image.

  24. I’ve had this post open in a tab since you wrote it, and I may have read it a hundred times. In fact, I printed it off for good measure, and have it sitting on my desk for a daily read. It’s been of great help to me, since I’ve been experiencing full-fledged “comparison-itis” for the first time this spring.

    One of my favorite photographers, who happens to also live in my state, has been a model and mentor for years. I’ve always enjoyed his work, and learned from it. But this year circumstances led us both to be in the same places, photographing the same scenes, multiple times. You probably know what happened next. I looked at his photos, then at mind, and it all kicked in. Every comparison left me feeling as though I was a slug next to a gazelle. It’s never a good feeling! Even worse, I moved backward pretty quickly to that all-or-nothing view of things that convinced me I was incapable to producing a single decent photo. I was ready to throw the camera in the trash.

    Then, I found your post, and the wake-up call it contained. Instead of telling myself that I was capable only of producing crap, I decided to figure out which strategies would help me move beyond all that. One was focusing on what I’m best at — macros instead of landscapes — and the other was saving my photos from the places my friend and I both had visited for later posting, rather than going head-to-head. Both things helped, and now I’m almost back to my usual level of enjoyment. Thanks for a great, curative post, Otto!

    1. What an amazing feedback, Linda. Very humbling. And of course, I am very happy if my writing has inspired some positive changes. It makes the blogging all worthwhile, right there and then. Thank you so much. And, as I wrote, I am very humbled to have been worthy of such a response.

      More so, I am truly happy that you have found joy in your photography again. Your experience is exactly why we should be more carefully in comparing with others. But then, when you do feel inadequate, it’s a good solution to return to what you feel you have a grip on. Like you did. It’s a way to ground yourself again.

      But then I would also like to add: Don’t give up on landscapes. It’s important that we try out new areas and try to expand our photography. In doing so, it’s good to remember that when starting out on something new, we are not already experts, but training to become better. Comparing yourself with an expert and probably with his best takes, is not fair to yourself. So keep shooting and just have fun with the process as you get a hang of it.

  25. I have found what you are saying to be true. I joined a photo club once, but I was unfortable with the amount of comparing and competing. Even though I learned some things, I felt uneasy with the atmosphere.

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