I remember one a long time ago about Dokken—which may prompt many of you to say Who? I love Dokken. They figure largely into my playlist. Musically, I think they had more to offer than the typical hair band, but they failed to capitalize on that strength. Lead singer Don Dokken claims it’s because they were always comparing themselves to the bigger bands and trying to recreate those successes. Case in point: if Mötley Crüe went through two boxes of Aqua Net a week, then Dokken clearly couldn’t be successful with only one. (Personally, if I was trying to compete with Crüe, I’d be less concerned with hair spray and more worried about Tommy Lee’s revolving drum set. But that’s just me.)
Dokken was so focused on emulating the successful bands that they lost sight of their own individuality and the strengths that could have set them apart. As a result, when I say Dokken you say Who? They actually did pretty well in the 80s but fell short of what they potentially could have become.
And this made me wonder: how many writers also fall short of their dreams because they’re stuck in the comparison trap?
Personally, I struggle with this. I see that Nora Roberts is releasing FIVE new novels in 2013 and, after retrieving my jaw from the floor, I get a little bummed because I know I’ll never be that prolific. When Kristen Lamb’s blog posts pop into my inbox five days a week, I find myself wishing I could come up with such practical content day after day. Closer to home, there’s my über-talented co-blogger and co-author, Angela Ackerman—the Obi Wan to my Luke. I’m constantly blown away by the marketing plans she comes up with. Her brain is like Hermione’s magically-expanding purse, popping out one brilliant idea after another.
Studying our writing mentors and learning from them is healthy and smart and generally a good idea. But that’s not what’s happening with the wistful comparisons mentioned above. Thoughts like these are based in negativity, focusing on what we can’t do rather than on what we can. They make us feel badly about ourselves, which decreases creativity and efficiency and actually increases our chances of failure.
So how do we admire the greats without getting sucked into the comparison trap?
Know your strengths. My husband is one of those people whose positive traits are kind of glaring. They’re just very obvious. I’m not like that; my strengths are quieter. After a number of years of
marriage, I kind of lost track of what I contributed, what I was good at. So I made a list. I wrote down all of my strengths—as a mom, a writer, a person, everything. Then I asked people who knew me to add to it. The list has changed somewhat over the years, with the move from teaching to writing, and now that I’m a mom. But I refer to my list often. Not only does it make me feel good about myself, but it reminds me of who I am. As a writer, it keeps me focused on the positive instead of the negative.
Capitalize on your strengths. Once you know where you’re strong, focus your time and energy on those areas. This sounds counter-intuitive, I know. I mean, shouldn’t we focus on our areas of weakness, since this is where we need to improve? I don’t think so. Yes, we absolutely need to work on our weaknesses, but we should spend as much time, if not more, focusing on our strengths. Why? Because we’re passionate about them. We’re most productive when doing them. We excel because of them. Here’s a personal example: I’m not so great at social networking. While I have plans to improve in this area, I’m not going to focus the majority of my time there because I’m never going to be great at it. Instead, I’m focusing on writing. When it comes to craft, I’m pretty solid, but my storytelling needs work. Since this is part of writing well, I’m excited to learn and grow in this area. As I improve, I’ll become more proficient, more efficient, more prolific. And it won’t be this huge struggle that comes from focusing on something I hate to do and I’m not any good at.
Be realistic. I can’t churn out a flawless novel every six months. I can’t put in the hour-a-day social networking effort it would take to crank up my online presence. Some authors can easily achieve these goals, but not me. That’s why we call them personal goals. Don’t look at what other people are doing and assume that success must be achieved by following the same formula. Make goals that work for you, according to your daily schedule, your time constraints, your strengths and desires. Set reasonable goals for yourself and when you reach them, be proud of your accomplishments, knowing you’ve done as much as you can with the time and the talents you’ve been given.
Comparisons can be helpful as a means of seeing new possibilities, but very quickly they become counter-productive. Don’t chase the Crües of the writing world. Acknowledge your weaknesses and embrace your strengths. Utilize your unique combination of talents to achieve your own brand of success, and you’ll get there eventually.
If you liked Angela’s post on Cultivating Reader Interest through Unexpected Emotion from her recent Donald Maass Workshop, she’s sharing another lesson learned over at Rebekah Grow’s blog. This one’s on Introspection & The Character’s Black Moment. Just follow the link!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.