I’m not as far in my career as I hoped to be by this time.
I imagine that’s true for most of you reading this.
The reasons why are pretty clear to me now. I’ve had plenty of chances to reflect on them. Mostly, it comes back to a fear of failure. While that fear can help propel you forward it can also hold you back. It has for me. And I know it has for you - I’ve received enough emails to be sure of it.
Right now, you’re letting it control you - even if you don’t think you are. And it can kill any chance you have of building a career for yourself.
By the end of this post, hopefully you’ll recognize how that fear can manifest in you and take action to free yourself from its grasp.
How Fear Manifests
We don’t always know it when it’s there. But it is always there, to varying degrees. Unfortunately, we’re great at justifying whatever fear we hold, and working against ourselves in ways too subtle for us to really notice.
But if we start by accepting that fear is there, regardless of what else might be there, too, we can stay a step ahead of what just might be the worst part of ourselves.
I know it seems dramatic, but as creators there’s always something to be afraid of. Failure, as I mentioned, is just one of the many things we might fear. As freelancers we lack financial security. As creators we often lack emotional security, making ourselves vulnerable with every story we tell.
We fear that we’ll never make a career for ourselves, never tell a story worth caring about, or that we’re being left out of an industry, of a life, we know we could be a part of.
And it can cause us to become perfectionists, grow arrogant, or become reticent to even act at all. To stop even before we’ve taken our first step towards making the kinds of comics we know, or dream, we can.
The fear itself is what will keep us form ever making great comics. But the understanding of the fear, and how it manifests in us, specifically, can free us - can free you - from that fate.
Right now, I’m writing this after a long period of not having written anything on this site. It’s not a big deal, but it’s still slightly terrifying.
I want this post to be great. I want everything I do to be great. And, as a result, that perfectionism is causing me to take way too long in writing this post.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that this’ll be a masterpiece. I continue to write with the hope that it will be useful to you, but I have to come to terms with the fact that this probably won’t be the most amazing thing I’ve ever written.
If anything, the chances are low.
But after I’ve written this, I’ll move onto the next post. And my chances will be slightly better of writing something that’s not just useful, not just entertaining, but really great.
It’s a catch-22 of sorts. The best way to make something great, and satiate your perfectionism, is to be willing to make something - lots of somethings - that are less then, as you continue to bridge the gap between the idea in your head and the quality of what you’re actually able to create.
Of course, there’s a balance to be found. You should still be rigorous with yourself - there’s no point letting yourself off easily. But if you spend too much time on a single project, a single page or panel, you’ll end up costing yourself. In the end, it’s often better to move on and work on something new, rather than stay stuck in a cycle of improving pieces of one project that will never be reflective of the quality you feel you’re capable of.
Don’t allow your desire to be great hold you back from being at all.
On the other end of the spectrum from perfectionism is arrogance. It’s an overconfident response to that same fear of failure, where you convince yourself that “my first project will be great.”
Your first at-bat won’t be a home run. In fact, most of us will never hit any “home-runs.” Though such mega-hits aren’t necessary to build a career, many of us still shoot for them, even if only subconsciously.
And the worst afflicted among us think that the first stories we tell will end up being these mega-hits.
If this is you. Stop. Do you realize what you’re expecting? There are talented creators that go entire careers without ever experiencing the kind of success you think you’ll get with your first project.
Just doing 60 issues of a story isn’t enough to make a mega-hit. It’s the kind of burden you should only attempt to take on after years of experience. And even then, it’s a challenge unlike any other.
Doesn’t it make more sense to work on smaller projects and get better before trying something so difficult? Committing to something that will suck up so much of your time, money, and energy?
“But I know what I’m doing,” you say. “It’s different!”
It’s really not. I know, I’m as stubborn as it gets. I’ve routinely overcommitted to long projects and slowly, painstakingly, learned from this.
Your first project probably sucks. And maybe it doesn’t suck objectively, but it will suck relative to what you’ll be able to make by the end of the year, or next year, or five years from now.
Especially if you spend that time telling one story after another.
And if you’re focused on making a great comic, rather than making a “hit” because you’re confident you’re already good enough, you’re much more likely to succeed, in the long run.
You don’t need a hit to be successful. Not being a megastar doesn’t mean you’re failure. If you stop holding yourself to those standards then, over time, you can try to be content finding your voice, telling the stories you want to tell, rather than expecting or hoping to be “successful” and falling prey to your own arrogance as a result.
Between arrogance and perfectionism is reticence. Maybe you’re already telling stories. You know that it’s a long road and that you have a lot to learn a long way.
But you hesitate to share your work, to stand behind it. Precisely because of your awareness of how much further you have to go.
It’s a more subtle kind of self-sabotage than the others. A quieter reaction to the fear. In this case it’s less about your own perspective on your failings, but how others might see you if they also come to the conclusion you’ve failed.
Rather than risk that, you stay quiet. You don’t go out of your way to promote yourself. You never give yourself the chance to shine that you deserve.
Ultimately, it’s cowardly. That might be a harsh way to put it, but it’s the truth. An understandable truth.
None of us want to be embarassed. But by sparing yourself in the short-term you end up hurting yourself a lot more. Let’s say, worst case scenario, you share your work and it’s terrible. Maybe you’re lucky and people tell you. Maybe you’re unlucky and people don’t. Hopefully that’s not the case, but even if it is, it’s usually pretty clear when people are just being polite. Besides, there’s always more you can do. You can always get better.
So, you make something really bad. And you feel terrible. And maybe it lingers. But eventually it passes, because you move onto the next project and, if you learned your lesson, you make something a little less bad. And so on!
That’s the path. If you never show your work, you’re going to grow a lot more slowly. Eventually, if you want to make a career or have readers, you will have to show your work. In fact, eventually, people will even find your work without you knowing! Before that happens you should take advantage of your anonymity and get as much feedback as you can from the people you trust.
A creative career is a public career. Otherwise, it’s a hobby.
You aren’t doing yourself any favors by being too afraid to stand behind your work, flaws and all.
Breaking Free From Your Fear
Whatever your fear, there’s a way out. In fact, if you’ve been reading closely, you may have noticed that it’s usually the same way:
Make comics, share those comics, and make more comics.
When you’re training to swim, the only way forward is to dive into the deep end.
You have to start somewhere, and you have to be willing to keep going, to accept that you will fail along the way.
You’re only as good as your last project. Just keep creating.
What are you afraid of?