How You're Holding Yourself Back

What if I told you there was a limiter on your ability as a creator? Something hindering your progress, preventing you from improving at a faster rate. I'm guessing you'd be desperate to overcome it.

If that's true - if you are willing to go the distance, then it shouldn't be too terrible to hear that there is, in fact, a limitation on your potential. A self-imposed obstacle holding you back. But, it can be overcome.

Unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to do so. It requires a lot of self-awareness. But if you succeed, the rewards for getting past the bottleneck are akin to a river breaking through a dam. You will learn and grow at a rate you never imagined possible.

That impeding, self-inflicted handicap we've been talking about is ego. And what you're about to read will help you confront its various dangers, overcome them, and reap the benefits of doing so.


The Curse of Ego

In comics, ego is the root of all evil. But it has a brighter face: pride. Though often confused, the two are not the same.

Pride is an earned regard for the work you create, and sense of your own intrinsic worth. It's necessary in order to maintain firm professional boundaries and avoid finding yourself bound by exploitative agreements.

Ego, while similar, is an inflated version of pride. When you have an undeserved high regard for your work, or when your sense of worth is greater than what you've earned, that's ego.

Unfortunately, ego is tricky. It can feel good to indulge your ego, since it seems like positive self-esteem, it's actually just arrogance. And the more you feed it, the more it festers and grows, impacting you in multiple, different ways and developing more severe consequences that can damage everything from your work to your professional relationships. That's what makes it such a terrible curse.

And that's also why it's critical to overcome and, by extension, understand.

Being able to distinguish between pride & ego is the first step towards grasping the dangerous nature of ego. The second step is learning about its many faces - and the different ways each one can hold you back and hurt your career.


Corrosive Ego

As one of the most evidently self-inflicted types of ego, Corrosive ego takes advantage of a creator's introspection. Without proper perspective or enough experience, it's unavoidable.

As a fledgeling creator, you start just by making something - developing your craft, whether you're writing or drawing. But your first projects rarely live up to your expectations.

That can be a very frustrating experience because while you have the theoretical understanding behind your craft - you have enough taste to recognize the good from the bad - without the ability to implement that theory, practically, your work falls short.

This can be damaging because it can cause us to get locked down, unable to move past the disparity between our understanding and our ability. As a result - because we feel that those first projects we're working on don't compare to what we feel we should be capable of - we end up not producing at all.

The high regard we have for our own potential, that inflated sense of worth, prevents us from being willing to be any less good than we think we should be.

But there's another type of Corrosive ego. It feeds off of a different kind of introspection.

If you manage to make it past the initial hurdle of being disappointed by your work not matching what you perceive your potential to be, you'll keeping creating. As your craft continues to improve with every project, you'll eventually find that you've started creating work you're proud of.

You're accumulating experience, and where you once had no prior work, you've started to build a library of projects you've created.

Though this is definitely a positive thing, this is where you can be forced to confront Corrosive ego again, this time in its second form.

As you start to create more work, you have more to compare your currents work to. Unlike when you were beginning, you're no longer comparing your work to an abstract image of what you think you should be able to accomplish. Instead you're comparing your work to other projects you've already completed, and are proud of.

This is the sort of Corrosive ego that is hurtful because of how it can make you feel that what you're currently working on doesn't compare to the work you've done in the past, your previous creative accomplishments.

It can lead you to stop exploring new ground, for fear of failing by producing something not as good as what you've done before. By abandoning experimentation, your work can grow stale.

While the pressure of this kind of retrospective Corrosive ego is different than the forward-facing variety, they are pretty similar to each other. Both are part of a vicious cycle, and can result in getting locked down in one way or another.

In moderation this pressure can be good. As pride, it can serve to ensure that you maintain a standard of quality across all of your projects. But taken too far it turns into ego and prevents you from accomplishing anything at all.


Venomous Ego

Where Corrosive ego deals with how you compare yourself to what you've been able to do and feel you should be able to do, Venomous ego is about how you compare ourselves to others, and the work they're doing.

As you spend every day fighting the current, working to keep writing, drawing, and building your career it can often look like everyone around you is progressing so much faster than you are.

They keep finishing more comics, getting published, growing their audience, and improving their craft, while you feel like you're still shuffling along.

But if those feelings endure they can get tainted by ego and become quite harmful. Rather than keep perspective and recognize that you're only seeing a highlight reel of the lives and careers of those around you, Venomous ego convinces you that the system is unfair.

Where you see a colleague get published, rather than be happy for them, Venomous ego will leave you feeling slighted because you believe you deserved that win just as much, if not more, than they did.

It's another result of an inflated sense of worth, except here the sense of worth is inflated relative to the worth you recognize in the people around us.

Because you feel you're better than the creators around you, and might lean towards a meritocratic view on creative careers (as most creators inherently do), when you see someone progress where you are not, Venomous ego can make you feel like you were owed that step forward. It convinces you that your peers did not deserve that success as much as you did.

This is what makes Venomous ego so dangerous. With Corrosive ego the impact is limited to each individual creator. But with Venomous ego it can start to affect the people around you, damaging your relationships with them, setting fire to bridges, and further slowing your own progress as a creator.

Here, the curse of ego really begins to show its full strength. But there is one more type of ego, beyond the Corrosive and Venomous, that uses both of the previous forms to reach a more severe final result.


Toxic Ego

While we may not be able to see the ego raincloud in real life, it is actually much more dangerous and disruptive than its cartoon counterpart. That's because in real life, as you continue to feed your ego, and as its impact grows, the rain cloud stretches until eventually, the rain falls not just on the bearer of the curse, but on the people around them, too.

That's Toxic ego. Unlike its counterparts, Toxic ego has much wider ranging implications. Whereas Corrosive and Venomous ego might lead you to give up on a project or make a passive aggressive statement online, neither brings down the people around you in the same way Toxic ego does.

That's because Toxic ego is expressed. It's specifically external, unlike Corrosive and Venomous ego, which tend to be largely internal, despite the ways in which they might bleed over to the people around you.

It is most commonly found in creative collaborations where one member of the team has an inflated sense of worth and it results in that one member valuing their own contribution to a project above that of their collaborator.

It's often supported by petty logic regarding the relative time and effort different members of a creative team bring to a project - ignoring that a comic isn't complete without every collaborators' contribution.

With Toxic ego, one member of the team believes their contribution is more significant than what others are contributing. They believe they deserve greater credit or compensation, so they bring up the issue, intending to have those factors match their high regard for their own work.

This is, again, different from pride, which can be useful in protecting yourself when your credit and compensation are less than what you rightfully deserve and have earned. It's a very thin line, a complicated issue, and part of what makes Toxic ego so dangerous.

In bringing these issues up, the curse-bearer is challenging their other collaborators. By asking for greater compensation or credit to sate your ego, you're confronting your teammates' pride, and can even end up bringing out their own ego. The thin line between pride and ego makes it that much easier to taint your colleagues' pride and turn it into ego.


But regardless of which you end up facing, you're still in sensitive territory, challenging your collaborator's sense of worth. Ego-driven conflicts here rarely end well, since one member of the team subconsciously believes they are worth more than the other(s).

Toxic Ego not only strains collaborative relationships - especially those that are new and fragile - but it also brings out the worst in the people around you. By provoking their ego you're letting your rain cloud - the curse - spread even further.


Breaking the Curse

As the curse lingers and festers over time, its impact becomes more pronounced, and its consequences more severe. It also gets harder to break.

But, as I mentioned, it is possible to break the curse of ego. And while each type of ego has its own solution, they all require one thing in common if you want to overcome them. Willpower.

That willpower is key to having the willingness to confront the part of yourself that feels like pride and seems right, but is actually damaging and holding you back. It can be hard to even accept the existence of ego, which is why it's so important to have spent the time learning about how it can manifest.

Now, equipped with an understanding of how ego functions, we can readily break the curse.

Through all this, it is important to remain vigilant, to be able to distinguish your pride from your ego. Despite how similar the two might seen, pride tends to tell you "I have earned X," where ego says "I deserve X." And while ego can sometime speak pride's language, this is a good way to generally tell them apart.

That awareness is key in maintaining the perspective necessary to battle ego, and come out stronger on the other side.


Fortifying Against Corrosive Ego

The key to being able to fortify yourself against Corrosive ego so that it doesn't break your creative spirit is being able to divorce yourself from the pressures you feel while creating.

With regard to facing your own aspirations and desire to meet your potential, it means understanding that the kind of quality we aspire to only comes with time. Ira Glass has a great quote on the subject that was put to video in a very compelling way.

Both types of Corrosive ego are counterproductive because they prevent projects from having the chance to come into their own and grow, unexamined. Protecting this incubation time and giving your projects a chance to find their legs is the key fortification tool. This is especially important when you have built up a body of work and are dealing with the second type of Corrosive ego.

It's unfair to subject a story to such self-imposed pressure before its even had a chance to find its legs. Your work, your craft, needs to have time to grow. Remembering this, and exploring each project at its own pace, will help face the pressures of creativity and protect you against Corrosive ego.

The Antidote for Venomous Ego

With Venomous Ego it's also important to keep perspective. But the solution here is a little different. You can't fortify against it the same way. Instead, the key to the antidote is to remind yourself to take your career, your progress, at its own pace.

If all you're concerned with are the milestones, it will obviously seem like everyone around you is progressing so much faster than you. First of all, you're comparing yourself, as one person, against the many different people you know, and all the milestones they are collectively reaching. It's a completely unfair comparison.

Second, all you're seeing from them are those milestones, while you're dealing with the daily grind on the road to accomplishing your goals. It's only natural for it to seem easier or faster for others when you aren't witnessing the daily effort they're putting in, but are stuck dealing with the incremental steps you need to take.

If you want to cure yourself of Venomous ego, it's also necessary to stop thinking about your progress in terms of milestones. While having goals is definitely important, becoming too goal-oriented in your thinking can be problematic. If you aren't able to enjoy the journey towards your goal, the actual act of creating, it's going to be tough to go the distance.

Everyone likes having made something. In order to overcome Venomous ego you need to enjoy the act of actually making. If you can then you're in a much better position to create just for its own merits and ignore the external accolades.

Most are meaningless or, at best, a distraction. The most important thing is making the best work you can make.


Purifying Toxic Ego

This is probably the most important type of ego to address. It requires a fundamental shift in how you think about comics - one that hopefully you will agree with.

A comic is not a comic without art - it can't get to that point without writing. To be a complete package it usually needs, lettering, coloring, or additional design work. You can break down the time involved in each step, but to maintain the health of a collaboration and clear the air of Toxic Ego, adopting an "all or nothing" perspective here can actually be useful.

Every piece is, in this way, equally important. A screw holding the engine together in a car is as important as the chassis itself, because without either one, the car would not function. Breaking down the relative value can be a slippery slope towards worsening the situation.

This, as always, extends to any sort of collaborative relationship, such as with publishers and editors, and not just the rest of the creative team.


Life After the Curse

But are you prepared to make the most of it? Because having ego out of the way is a massive game-changer. Once you don't need to deal with ego, your craft and career and progress so much faster. So it's a waste if you spend the sunny day indoors, so to speak.


The key to tapping into that progress is Investing in Loss. Investing in Loss is kind of like a Chinese finger trap. When you're caught in the trap, struggling to get out will get you nowhere. It's only by giving in and pushing your fingers together, that you'll find the space to escape.

In the same way, by doubling down on loss and failure, you can accelerate the rate at which you learn and grow.

I learned about this concept in a book called The Art of Learning. It's written by eight-time National Chess Champion, Josh Waitzkin - the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer.

The Art of Learning covers many topics on the road to excellence, primarily focusing on performance psychology. In the chapter titled Investing In Loss, Josh provides insight into the impact of ego with an anecdote from the beginning of his time exploring the martial side of Tai Chi Push Hands (in which he would go on to become a world champion).

...One of the most challenging leaps for Push Hands students is to release the ego enough to allow themselves to be tossed around while they learn how *not to resist*. If a big strong guy comes into a martial arts studio and someone pushes him, he wants to resist and push the guy back to prove that he is a big strong guy. The problem is that he isn’t learning anything by doing this. In order to grow he needs to give up his current mind-set. He needs to lose to win. The bruiser will need to get pushed around by little guys for a while, until he learns how to use more than brawn.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

This can be directly translated to your progress. Everyone wants to create great work and creating work that falls short of those ambitions and becomes subject to Corrosive Ego can be frustrating.

But investing in loss encourages a conscious willingness to look bad on the road to being great. It goes beyond overcoming your ego, and requires you to overcome your pride, too. It requires being brave enough to explore new territory, with a clear awareness of the fact that you'll make many mistakes along the way.

The same goes for the business decisions you make as a creator. Explore new territory with an understanding that you will make mistakes and know that those mistakes will help you grow.

In Push Hands [investment in loss] is letting yourself be pushed without reverting back to old habits - training yourself to be soft and receptive when your body doesn’t have any idea how to do it and wants to tighten up.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

For you, as a creator, letting yourself be pushed, means being able to take criticism and turn it around to fuel your progress forward.

Every new lesson you learn opens you up to another mistake and another opportunity for growth. Waitzkin calls Push Hands class "humility training," and I find that term especially apt in the ego-laced craft and business of comics.

If you can truly learn with no ego - "with open pores" - then you will grow much faster than you ever expected.

Personally, I can recall moments where I've significantly improved as a creator. But every moment like that was soon followed by further challenges. If I had just stayed within my comfort zone, I would never have grown beyond those obstacles. I would only have indulged my ego by avoiding making mistakes that could be embarrassing.

Instead, by continuing to experiment, and take risks, I was able to take more, larger steps forward, and keep growing, at a faster rate than I thought I could. It's a cycle filled with obstacles, but it's not a vicious cycle - it's a virtuous one.

At the end of the relevant chapter, Josh writes about Michael Jordan:

It is common knowledge that Jordan made more last-minute shots to win the game for his team than any other player in the history of the NBA. What is not so well known, is that Jordan also missed more last-minute shots to lose the game for his team than any other player in the history of the gamer. What made him the greatest was not perfection, but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

That willingness to take risks can have massive rewards if its backed by your own perseverance.

But you can only get to that point if you're able to recognize your ego, when it comes into play, and overcome it, through the methods I just explained. Fortunately, you read this post, so go out there, take risks, and dive deeper into the craft and business of creating comics.