I have a story. A story that does relate to photography and any other creative field. But for this story, I have to take you back to my track coaching days.
Every year, it never failed, I was blessed with one or two super good freshman female runners where I coached. They came out of nowhere. Never ran a day in their life and joined up only because some of their friends did. Then, half way through the season a single race would change it all. Something clicked and they were suddenly within the top 5 on the team (out of about 40). Every now and then one of them would emerge as number 1. How did that happen? Physically there are lots of explanations, but mentally? They didn’t know any better.
They continued with success throughout their freshman year. And oh, how it killed the psyche of my sophomore runners. They never saw that fast little freshman coming. They weren’t the fastest runners anymore. It was a vicious cycle that I dealt with every year – and the tears and frustration that comes with it. That fast little freshman that year would go on the next year to be the sophomore who got crushed in a race by an upstart freshman. (There were exceptions but this generally happened every year). Girls were more susceptible to this than the guys for what is physical reasons and some mental. Because if you’ve never heard it before, running is a mental sport.
Guys were not shaded from psychological setbacks though. Many times before a race I refused my athletes access to the submitted times of other racers. I wanted them to go in blind to the race. Otherwise one of a couple of things would happen. They would freeze up and run a horrible race out of fear because their competition’s submitted times for that race were unbelievable. Or they wouldn’t run their race and instead focus on the other runners, trying to run their race. It never ended well. So I withheld submitted times to keep those athletes in the dark. To keep them naive.
Do you see the link yet to our creative work?
We can become upset over upstart creatives that seem to come out of nowhere. We can have setbacks because we focus on others. But there’s a common theme that explains why the freshmen girls were successful and why I withheld times from my athletes and why there are those who create great things.
You see, naivete is important and it is a good thing – at times, both in competitions and in our creative work. Not all the time, but it is something to appreciate. With naivete, you don’t get the negative comparison trap that hurts your work. You are free to do your own work with a confidence that comes naturally. You actually feel like your work is fun and you more freely create. Fear is far behind you and you feel like you actually know what you are doing, or at least you don’t care. You find the zone and are happy to stay there. Your work, your creativity, your artistry makes your heart sing. This is the place where you will most likely create your best stuff.
Naivete is what makes you create as a beginner and keeps you creating as you become more experienced.
If naivete is so great then why not call on it all the time? I believe it is a push and pull. To be naive all the time hurts us. We don’t venture out and learn from others. We don’t grow. We don’t appreciate what others have to offer and how great they are. Those are all important factors to our own creations, and it was true of my runners as well. At some point I had to show them the submitted times. I had to help the sophomores appreciate the freshmen who could push them to be better. Naivete can be great for us but at some point we do have to venture out and become better by learning from others. But there’s a point where we start to compare ourselves or have fear of submitting our work or creating a portfolio. This is when we should find the shelter of naivete and create.
Comparing yourself robs you of greatness. Many times over I yelled at my athletes in a race to stop running others’ races but instead run their own race. How could I tell they weren’t running their race (and if you didn’t know yes, it is a thing)? I could tell because it wasn’t their style. They weren’t doing the same things they did in their workouts or other races. Running races is more mental and it takes focus and strategy to actually win a race. It’s not about who is the fastest, especially when the athletes are about the same age, same physique, and have the same athleticism.
Artistry at a high level is the same way. Others have the same physique or knowledge, but it is about how you use it – the strategy, the focus. Your work requires your style, not someone else’s. Run your own race, create your own work and don’t worry about what others are doing.
Why is that important? Because those running their own race will win, not those that run other’s races – they are only playing keep up.
One of the best runners I ever had had one of the worst races I ever saw. He was in the mile at the state meet. He could’ve placed in the top three, had he run his race. Instead he had already competed once and allowed that thought to become a negative slash against him. He said he was tired. I said I didn’t care. He had plenty of time to recover and needed to get out there and do the work that he’d prepared to do for so long. Instead he let the negative build in his mind. He started comparing himself (even though others had also run the same races he did). He decided he would latch on to another runner and run with them, rather than race. Because he wasn’t focused on his own race and instead on what the other runner would do, he lost it. He actually got slower as he spent all his energy on keeping up and ran a super slow time.
You will only be as good as whoever’s race you are running and you will never reach your full potential. Or you give others the upper hand and the confidence to play you, to make a shift and change their race, leaving you in their dust. My athlete didn’t know the other runner realized what he was doing. And the other runner had fun with him by surging in the curves and slowing way down on part of the straights. Eventually, he left my runner behind who exhausted himself trying to keep up with the changes. My athlete was so tired from mentally and physically keeping up, then the fear entered his mind. I could see it on his face. Then I saw it in his form and things fell apart from there. But the thing is he was a better runner than that other guy. Much better. He didn’t realize his own potential that day due to comparison and finally fear.
You know that point. The point where fear freezes you, causing you to do nothing. You don’t pick up your camera for days or even weeks. Many people call this a slump, writers block, or ruts. I call it the sophomore slump.
It’s a bad place. For runners in a race, you can see the fear on their faces. You can hear their negative complaining at practice. For creatives, they complain about other’s work or their gear and secretly hide their fears. Worse, they avoid creating, making excuses that cover up the fear. We allow negative thoughts to enter which cause us to focus on that rather than on creating. But we can do better.
What to do:
When you realize you’re beating yourself up with comparison, negative talk, or you feel that ball of fear (the one that says what if . . . or are you sure) then there are things you can do to bring back a little of the naivete.
First – stop complaining. I would ban any athlete who complained. Whether it was about another athlete, another team, my practices, or themselves. Sidenote – there is a difference between knowing when something is wrong and complaining because you feel bad for yourself. But, if you’re gonna complain because of fear or comparison – hit the road. Because you’re only going to bring yourself down and anyone else who hears you. Stop it!
Second – if comparison is the devil sitting on your shoulder, stop looking. Get off social media, the forums, the internet if need be. Stop going to shows, shops, galleries or where ever you see others doing things you want. Stop reading the newspaper or watching tv if it’s there. Get away from other’s work. Become consumed by your own work. Get out and take photos, go home and process them. Create and do rather than consume. If you focus within and create without looking around, you allow naivete to enter back in. Learn when you need to back away from everyone else’s race when you feel yourself getting caught up in it. Slow down, get yourself together then run your own race.
Third – if the fear is inside you or you find yourself saying what if or you’re unsure of your work. Take a deep breath and create anyway. This one is the toughest and I’ve still yet to figure out how to conquer it. It was difficult for me to coach out of my athletes. Fear is the worst thing Satan will throw at you. It is how he tempts you to run away from yourself. Don’t run away but turn around and accept yourself and your work. Know that what you create is good if it came from your own heart.
Fourth – Remember your vision. Remember your purpose. It is that that should drive you to create. Without a clear vision you’ll more easily be swayed by others creating around you.
Fifth – grab a mentor or creative friend that can encourage and direct you to work through comparisons and fear. If you are in search of one, I offer simple mentoring services. If you’d like more information or to ask me any questions or just get to know me, I offer a free 1/2 hour discovery call. Just fill out the form here letting me know you’re interested in the call and three times that work for you.