Stop Looking Out, Start Looking In

It’s easy (now more than ever) to compare yourself to (and, well, copy) others in your field.

With the internet at our fingertips and our iPhones at our bedside tables, we wake up and go to sleep seeing how other people live and work (or what they choose to show, rather). It’s freakishly easy to get sucked into the comparison trap and start walking the path someone else did thinking you’ll end up in the same place, but as magic 8-ball says, that’s very doubtful.

I’ve received countless emails from design students and have called on numerous hands-up when I was teaching at Sheridan, all asking what I did to get where I am: a question I really dislike; a question that’s completely irrelevant. In short, it isn’t necessarily anything I did that led me to where I am, but rather what the things I did taught me about myself. Further, and more abstractly, it isn’t by dressing how I do, or by doing yoga (followed by eating Doritos) or taking an above-shot of coffee, or tackling a year-long passion project that has led to my success — that stuff is just fluffy fun. So, what is the secret? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve found that embracing my unfair advantage has been more helpful to my career than any business book has been — correction: ironically I gathered this after reading ReWork, but you get what I mean.

As I was writing this post, the Huff Post released the article To Anyone Who Thinks They’re Falling Behind in Life, and I couldn’t help but nod as I read along, so I felt compelled to share a nugget from it relevant to my point here:

We act as if we can read enough articles and enough little Pinterest quotes and suddenly the little switch in our brain will put us into action. But, honestly, here’s the thing that nobody really talks about when it comes to success and motivation and willpower and goals and productivity and all those little buzzwords that have come into popularity: you are as you are until you’re not. You change when you want to change. You put your ideas into action in the timing that is best. That’s just how it happens.

And what I think we all need more than anything is this: permission to be wherever the fuck we are when we’re there.

This isn’t to say we don’t all need a swift butt-kicking every once in a while, but the point is that we too often look outward for motivation, for approval, for signs, when the most valuable business book is the one already inside our heads and heart. We need to start thinking of ourselves as our best resource and tapping into our unique and unfair advantage to get where we want to go.

So, how do you do that? It may sound silly, but try making an exhaustive list of what you’re good at — I’m talking every skill or natural penchant for anything — be it a tangible skill or the mental ability to multi-task. From that, write out a few words or sentences surrounding what your unique value proposition is. Perhaps you’re naturally good at organizing — that’s a skill that might seem irrelevant, but can be very valuable. Me? I’m good at crafting big ideas, and my execution-first approach lends itself well to applying a larger vision to my design and illustration projects, however small. (Sidebar: Ironically I only learned this about myself after I was told it in the context that it was a bad thing.)

Learning and refining is great, and not everything you have to offer is gold, but humor yourself and try shifting your perspective: think of those things you view as bad about yourself as good. Another trait I once thought of as bad is that I’m very unfocused. I like doing and am good at a few things, but not super-specialized in any one, and rather than seeing that as bad, I learned to see my jane-of-all-trade-ness as a good thing. Since using that as a feature not a defect, I’ve been able to launch myself into industries and projects far outside of the realm of illustration and design — such as blogging, writing, styling, teaching and UI / UX.

So without trying to sound too corny, the takeaway is to be yourself. No matter who you look up to, who you follow on Instagram, where you are in life and what you do, never strip yourself out of the equation. Rather, use yourself. Take advantage of who you are and start putting it out there. You never know who’s watching and where that can lead you.