I’m kind of a classic rock geek aficionado, so one of my favorite shows is VH1’s Behind The Music. I think I’ve seen every episode.
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.
Andrea Mack says
I love this post, Becca! It is so important to be aware of and work with your own strengths, and to give yourself a pat on the back once in a while for what you can do. Some of us don’t do that enough, especially in what can be such a long and discouraging writing process.
My bad on the names, I mixed them up even though I promised my brain I won’t, hahah. Either way, I look up to you both. *claps*
I really wanna thank you for writing this article. As someone who puts your blog on my most visited tabs, I can’t say how empowering it is to know that the people I admire are humans too – dealing with the same set of vulnerability that I do everyday.
Thanks so much Angela, I hope you know that your words (and Becca’s) always inspire me to do better – even when it doesn’t involve writing.
Teresa Robeson says
Yeah, I did say “who?” LOL! Thanks for the reminder to not compare ourselves too much and too unfavorably to others. 🙂
Carrie Butler says
Well said! This is a very important point to remember. 🙂
Robert Foster says
Epic post and great points. May I reblog this over at beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com?
What a smart post! Thanks, Becca, I needed that.
Lisa Bowring says
LOVE Dokken! You have just inspired me to write to their music today (Don solo isn’t too bad either 🙂 ). I could never be like Nora Roberts and crank out 5 full length novels in a year – I just don’t have that kind of discipline. Nor that kind of time while working at a full time job in 12 hour shifts. I aspire to be more like Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher or Kim Harrison and release 1 awesome novel a year (give or take a few months). Write 1 novel, make it the best it can be and hope readers will step into my world.
Martha Ramirez says
This is great, Becca! I think we all have someone we admire and this is a GREAT reminder that it is very important to not compare yourself.
Wow, Nora wrote 5 books in one year? I wonder how long they all are and how intense her editing is.
This is excellent advice! It’s okay to admire but you’re so right. How will we stand out from the crowd if we are trying to imitate other people’s success?
Success is a different for every individual.
Thank you for reminding me this!
Becca, I’ve never watched VH1’s anything, but I’m a huge classic rock fan, and now you have me intrigued. I’m going to have to check that show out. And you made me smile a little… you say we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but you compare yourself to Angela. Don’t worry! You’re both awesome! (And Nora Roberts and Kristen Lamb are freaks of nature… I have to tell myself that, or I’ll sink to the bottom of a pit of despair.) Seriously, this post, like all your posts, was great. We should work on our weaknesses, but we should hone our strengths. That’s something I, and probably a lot of people, needed to hear right now. Thanks.
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Emilia Quill says
I knew the name Dokken was familiar, I’ve sang Dream Warriors in Hevikaraoke (a Finnish metal karaoke bar) a few times. I was wondering whose song that was 😛
I tend to be good at description, especially nature. I also tend to fear veering into purple prose, but I’ve only complaints of the opposite.
Becca Puglisi says
I think comparing ourselves to others is second-nature. It’s one of those things that we just do without really thinking about it, and it causes so much turmoil and angst.
I’m sorry to see that it’s such a universal problem, but I’m also glad that I’m not alone, lol.
Julie Musil says
OH MY GOSH!!! This is SO great. I tell ya, I find my comparing all the time, and definitely coming up short. Then I remind myself, “Self, you are not person X. You are you, and you’ll do what you can.” Conversations with myself are a little less creepy than that.
Anyway, I’ve come to the point where I had to ask myself, “What do I really want to accomplish?” Once I knew the answer to that, I felt comfortable with paving my own path.
Becca, you and Angela are perfect halves to a perfect whole when it comes to this blog and your ET book. And as writers, you’re perfectly individual.
Wild About Words says
Editors At Work says
Great post. And so true, we all are guilty of comparing ourselves to others.
Stina Lindenblatt says
I used to love Dokken, and yet I can’t remember a single song of theirs. Hmmm. What does that tell you?
I’m constantly getting caught in the comparison trap. Thanks, Becca, for the great advice. 😀
Donna K. Weaver says
Oh, too much truth in this post! It’s easy to walk into a bookstore or browse online and see those thousands of books and wonder what the heck you think you’re doing.
Angela Ackerman says
@Matt, bigger just means more empty space! You and @Stephanie crack me up!
I think Becca and I work so well together because we have different strengths. It is her knowledge and organization skills that get stuff done, believe me. I would be a mess without her!
Johanna Garth says
Such a hard thing to resist the temptation to compare, but the wisdom is the same as it was in junior high. Just be yourself and revel in all you have to offer.
I remember Dokken. Never one of my favorites, as that’s not my style of music, but I remember them. They’re not so much a Who? band for me, as a Whatever happened to those guys? band.
Great post, by the way. You really have to be careful with those comparisons.
Stéphanie Noël says
Just realized that if angela is the Tardis, Becca is the Doctor. Bam! Mind blown!
Stéphanie Noël says
@Matthew: Angela is the Tardis!!
It’s important to learn to stop comparing. I used to do it all the time and as a result, I worked less because I felt it was pointless. Good post! I will list it in my weekly blog roll!
This is a really good post and reminder for all of us who think we have to measure up to someone else. I won’t even comment on releasing five books in a single year.
Laura Pauling says
Becca, this is awesome. And so true. And it’s never been easier to compare and emulate than today with all the social media. But I agree. We should stick to what we’re passionate about and what we love.
Matthew MacNish says
Angela’s brain: it’s bigger on the inside.
Mark Koopmans says
Oh I love playing to my strengths.
For the first time in ten years of writing, I am about to embark on a fiction novel.
My poor MC… he has noooooo idea what’s about to hit him 🙂