I get so worried by what other people are doing.
It’s the worst kind of anxiety.
Right now, I’m reading The War at the End of the World by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.
It’s also massive.
And no pictures.
I’m halfway through and can’t believe how dense the damn thing is.
The scope is huge, but at the same time, the lens is so sharply focused on detail. I despair at how he’s going to maintain it for another 300-odd pages.
But I despair most at how the hell this book was written and edited in the first place.
I think about when I was editing my own book, The Art of the Click…
My book is small. About 250 pages. It’s focused on one subject. It doesn’t have a huge range of characters. It’s about something I know about and can write on easily.
The War at the End of the World is based on a weird religious cult and a political fight that unfolded in Brazil in the 19th century, which Vargas Llosa wasn’t there for. It’s crazy.
As I now understand the process of writing and editing a ‘real’ book, I look at works like Vargas Llosa’s and break into a cold sweat at the thought of how damn intelligent the guy must be.
Obviously, Mario Vargas Llosa is a world famous author and is well practiced at this whole book-writing game. He’s also not someone I would compare myself to. He’s on a different level completely.
But the anxiety about other people’s work applies equally when marking myself against actual contemporaries.
I look at books written about copywriting and advertising and wonder if my effort deserves to be included in their ranks.
I look at direct response sales letters (which I write for a living) and wonder if my ideas are as valid or as original as fellow writers in the field.
Hell, I even look at little opinion pieces like this and wonder if what I write holds any worth compared to others.
And wait there: if I doubt myself, why do I do it anyway?
Well, if you relate to the anxiety I’m talking about, hopefully I can offer some advice. It’s why I’m sharing this piece.
It’s OK To Doubt Yourself
I guess it’s what they call ‘imposter syndrome’ – when you feel you’re constantly blagging it while everyone else is some super-qualified expert in the field.
It’s nonsense, of course.
As I’m often reminded by my closest friends, when it comes to direct response copywriting, I’ve spent Gladwell’s 10,000 hours studying (probably 10 times that, in fact). I’ve put in the long days and even longer (booze-fuelled) nights. And, thankfully, I continue to have decent success.
At the same time – as my experience of life grows – I’ve come to see that very few people actually know what they’re doing.
I’ve worked in retail, in education, in local government, in banking, in the private sector…
In every area I’ve come across dozens of people – often in positions of power – who are completely making it up as they go along.
But in many cases, it works.
Despite the self-doubt, you do what you can to find a way to make things work. And to be clear, I’ve got no problem with making it up as you go along. (So long as you’re honest about it.)
Still, when you see someone else doing exactly that and doing it a bit more successfully, the doubt creeps back in.
Unless you’ve managed to climb all the way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or you’ve ascended to some Kantian-level of self-knowledge (or you’re just pathologically self-assured), you will always doubt yourself.
And that’s OK.
It’s OK to doubt yourself sometimes. In fact, I’m no clinical psychologist, but it’s probably pretty healthy too. It sure as hell helps prevent you from becoming some pathologically self-assured jerk.
But there is a problem with it too, which if you relate to what I’m talking about here, you’ll probably recognise.
The feeling of ‘creative paralysis’ is the sense that something is not worth doing because someone else will do it – or has already done it – better or more successfully than you.
That’s when comparing yourself to others becomes too negative.
It destroys creativity.
It curtails drive.
And, left to run amok, it would result in a much more boring, repetitive world.
Imagine a world where Paul Auster didn’t write The New York Trilogy because Cervantes had already written a really good book called Don Quixote.
Imagine a world where Kendrick Lamar didn’t produce DAMN because Kanye West had already produced a really good album called The Life of Pablo.
Imagine a world where Vince Gilligan didn’t create Breaking Bad because David Chase had already created a really good TV series called The Sopranos.
Gilligan and Lamar have both spoken about self-doubt and anxiety in their work. And as for Auster, this quote from his book Man in the Dark sums it up nicely:
“For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place.”
See, it’s OK to doubt yourself. Paul Auster says so.
Truth is: There is room in this world for plenty more good books…hit records…and binge-worthy TV shows. You should never let the fact that someone else is doing something similar worry you.
It’s not about doing something ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It’s about doing something different. And if what you’re doing is authentic and honest, it’s worth doing. Remember that.
And here’s another thing to remember…
All too often, when it comes to comparing yourself to contemporaries, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll probably find you’re comparing [insert one fruit here] to [insert completely different fruit here].
I think I saw the idea expressed in one of those annoying and sentimental motivational quotes that get shared on social media, but I have to admit it stuck in my mind…
I’m paraphrasing but it was something like: “Don’t compare your Chapter One to someone else’s Chapter Thirty.”
Useful. Also, yes.
At least, I think so. Because thinking in those terms, even if I did have the audacity to compare myself as a writer to Mario Vargas Llosa, I could take some comfort.
You see, whilst I’m only on, say, Chapter Three of my journey, Vargas Llosa has reached the damn Epilogue. Of course he’s going to be more accomplished.
So, next time the inevitable self-doubt kicks in, remember two things…
- One: It’s OK to be doubtful and completely natural to feel that way.
- And two: You shouldn’t compare the individual and unique series of events and experiences happening for you right now to those of other people who are at a completely different stage of their life.
P.S. For those who read last week’s piece and wondered which subject line won…it was the full stop.
Yup. Just a full stop. It got a higher open rate, more clicks and more conversions.
Just shows you can theorize all you want but sometimes, you’ve just got to be different.