Life of an Artist | Competition vs. Comparison (and Robbing Yourself of Joy)

Original illustratino of a blue and red poppy flower by Chicago artist Tracey Capone
Blue and Red Poppy” Original Illustration – © Tracey Capone Fine Art

” A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.” – Zen Shin

 I have always loved that quote, but want to tweak it to read something like this:

“A flower does not think of comparing itself to the flower next to it. It just blooms.”

Healthy competition is a good thing, it helps us grow as artists, and as people. Any artist who walks in to a room full of peers, thinking they have no equal or greater, is doomed to stall creatively.

It’s in our nature to compete, whether we consider ourselves competitive or not. Artists are no exception; despite the creative magic we conjure, we are mere mortals, subject to the same emotions as everyone else. Yet, somehow competition with other artists makes some of us feel guilty.

But why? There is nothing to feel guilty about when we compete with our peers, whether openly or internally. We can want the best for other artists and still want to be one of the best; the two don’t cancel one another out. The trick is to understand the difference between healthy competition and unhealthy comparison to others.

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steve Furtick

I need that quote on a permanent sticky note, now more than ever, in the age of social media. It’s a difficult one to remember, especially on those days when I am off creatively or my business is a bit slow.

Instagram, Facebook, and the like, make it very easy to present a highlight reel of our lives. It allows a person to edit out the unfavorable scenes (or edit them in when it suits their needs) giving a picture of success, or glamour, or any number of things that may make others feel less than average. But it’s not the full picture…

Where competition motivates us to better ourselves as artists: honing our crafts, learning new techniques or even entirely new mediums, comparison to others only blinds us to what we, ourselves, have actually accomplished. The worst part? Not only are we comparing ourselves to what may be an incomplete picture, it may not even be real.

That painter you follow seemingly nails every complicated painting they create with tremendous ease while you’re still struggling with brush control or color mixing. In reality, how many paintings have they scrapped between every “perfect” painting? How many times have the thrown their brush down in frustration?

That photographer you saw at the art festival shouts from the Instagram rooftops that they, “sold out of everything,” while you’re carting home bins full of unsold work. How much did they bring, and what were the price points? Did they really sell out of everything or are they perhaps exaggerating a bit?

You find yourself jealous that that another artist has a ton or Instagram followers when you seem to have plateaued in the triple digits. Given the nature of Instagram, how many of those “tons” of followers are quality followers versus bots or bought followers? (never mind the fact that your value as an artist isn’t relative to the number of followers)

The point being, you are only seeing what is clearly visible to you or what they choose to reveal. When we begin comparing our talents and creative businesses to other artists, without all the background details, we’re setting ourselves up for insecurity, a deflated drive and possible failure.

For example, when I first opened my Etsy shop, nearly ten years ago, I spent ridiculous amounts of time comparing my sales numbers to others.

The problem? Aside from the fact that I wasted time which would have better been spent practicing my craft or bettering my shop? Etsy’s sales numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, one photographer could show a single sale in a day, but it could have been $250 enlargement. Another photographer could show five sales that same day but may have sold five small prints for $15 each. Dollar wise, the one who sold that single enlargement had a more profitable day; numbers wise, it appears that the one who sold the five small prints did better. Should the photographer who sold the single print feel badly about their day? Heck no, but if they focus on the numbers, without the whole picture, they miss out on feeling that sense of joy over selling a big piece.

So, there I was, comparing myself to others, instead of being proud of all the hard work I put in, and the sales I had already made. I let it get to me, and make me question everything about my business. At the time, I still worked a full time job, and could have easily walked away, but, given how far I have come today, I’m glad I didn’t.

At some point, I started to realize that the only person I should compare myself to, the only healthy comparison, is to previous versions of me because that is the only instance where I have all the information. I embrace competition with other artists, as it allows me recognize both my strengths and weaknesses, and it helps motivate me to become a better artist year after year. I am proud of how much my work has evolved, how it is received and who I am as an artist and business person. I look forward to seeing where I am in another ten years in relation to today.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Embrace competition, allow it to help motivate you to grow as an artist, and your work will never grow stale. Don’t allow unhealthy comparisons to rob you of the joy of doing what you love: creating.

When you find yourself playing the comparison game, stop and make a list of all the things you have accomplished. Take the focus off the other person, put it back on you, and recognize, and revel in, your own successes as an artist. When you look back in ten years, at who you were today, you will thank yourself for it.

“We won’t be distracted my comparison, if we are captivated with purpose.” – Bob Goff

Do you find yourself playing the comparison game? What are ways that you prevent yourself from comparing yourself to others? What advice do you have for new artists to avoid that trap?

I would love to hear your thoughts!


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