posted on Mar 07, 2020
The Gift That Keeps On Giving by Vincent Menier
One of the valuable aspects of the social media hive mind is its ability to formulate issues some of its components (individuals) are facing and put them out there for self-diagnosis. With winter creeping in, the general morale tends to drop a little and artists are more likely to voice some of the challenges they are facing. That usually ranges from finding out what brush Gustav Klimt was using to questioning the nature of art and its role in the cosmic dance of the universe. Today, I'd like to discuss a topic which I've seen come up quite a bit on my feed, the Olympic boomerang that keeps coming back to smash your face in slo-mo: self-judgement.
Now, that's quite the can of worms or Pandora's box, if you will, so let's take a second to unpack what it is we'll be talking about here. We're all living in a complex network of hierarchies, where people who are really good at certain things tend to have a higher status and vice versa. Most people tend to judge themselves based on an ideal, who often represents the top of a given hierarchy. In broad strokes, a lot of painters look up to Leonardo da Vinci, entrepreneurs to Elon Musk and my cat is pretty convinced that he's at the top of the entire food chain. While that's great because it gives you something to aim for, it comes bundled with the constant reminder that you suck and that even when you make some progress, you're still far off and you still suck. Let's admit it, it's quite common for artists to feel that the more they grow, the more they'll never "make it." I've seen quite a few creatives starting out thinking they'll become as great as <insert badass individual> in under a year and then be convinced they'll never be any good three years down the line even though they grew at a daunting speed. Self-judgement is also this uneasy feeling when going to bed that you just wasted another day of your life, not living up to what you should or could have done. Not only are you not good but you’re not good at becoming good! This feeling can come once in a while or like a chronic depression, it can be with you every day. It’s different for all of us but one thing I’m hoping we can agree on is that it’s not helping. Worse, it’s dragging us down and in turn preventing us from growing and more importantly enjoying our growth.
So, what is "good" really? If we use a scale from 0 to 100 and say 100 is the ideal and 0 is the total beginner, where does good stand, exactly? Is it 70, 80? How about great? 90? And how do you put someone on this scale, exactly? Can we rate a person across several dimensions such as design, composition, color, anatomy, technical skills? If you stop and think about it for a minute, it's quite a ridiculous and nonsensical exercise. Besides, when assessing if something is good, shouldn't we take into account some degree of context? A simple drawing of a character might be amazing coming from an 8-year-old while anyone would dismiss it if it was a 30-year-old doing it. All of this leads me to conclude that any precise definition of what a good artist is, is very much subjective. Now don't get me wrong, I'm only talking about a precise definition here. There are definitely ways to assess value in broader strokes and this is what I'd like to talk about next. If you ask people which of the Jurassic Park movies is the best, you'll most likely get one obvious answer (if not, give Mike Hill a call). Same thing if you ask gamers to pick between Alien: Isolation and Aliens: Colonial Marines. On the opposite side, you might get a lot more of a debate if you ask people to choose their favorite Tarantino film. What does this tell us? That in general, we're pretty good at rating two things objectively, providing that they are reasonably far apart from one another. Now this is really interesting because it means we can apply it to our own self-assessment on the condition that we rate ourselves based on snapshots of our skills which are largely separated in time. For example, it's pretty clear to me Stephen Spielberg grew immensely as a director between the six years that separated his first film Duel and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One might object that six years is quite a bit of time but I bet that if you look at most artists’ progression over a shorter time period, you'd find leaps in quality, especially before they reach senior level (whatever that means).
Alright, let's recap: we're not really efficient at quantifying "good" in a precise granular way but, we're pretty on point when it comes to assessing things in greater orders of magnitude. This is really interesting to note because we can turn it to our advantage in our quest to deal with self-judgement. Given that our ability to judge our growth seems to differ depending on the scale at which we're observing ourselves, it is necessary to come up with a system that works at different resolutions. After all, it makes sense to use a macro lens in order to photograph an insect on a leaf, while you would use a wide-angle when attempting to capture a vast landscape. It's the same principle that applies here.
Let's start with our day-to-day. This is the part we know we're not good at judging. Therefore, we need a rigid system based on quantifiable goals where we can say, "yes, I made it" or "no, I missed the mark." A quantifiable goal is something like "worked one hour completely focused on an illustration" or "finished unwrapping the UVs of my character." It's something there's no debate about just like "doing 20 push-ups" or "running three kilometers." You want to make sure to outline each goal as clearly as possible in order to remove any form of doubt. Then, it's up to you to come up with a schedule and some goals that aren't too easy but are very much achievable. You want a plan that will have you walk that line where you're slightly uncomfortable but not completely out of your depth. Start small and slowly aim higher each week with small incremental steps. When you hit your objective(s) for the day, you allow yourself to feel good. It's not up for debate. You set the rules of the game before starting the day and you nailed it. If the objective was too small, you'll crank it up at the next cycle, but for the time being, you played the game fair and square and you won. You don't judge yourself on the results but only on the completion or your objective(s). Your ultimate, short-term objective isn't to become a great artist but a disciplined one. You may also consider rewarding yourself with small treats that are proportionate to the task you completed. For example, you could reward yourself with a nice walk and a cup of coffee if you wrap up the line art of that illustration you've been working on. It doesn't sound like much but it trains your brain to enjoy completing objectives and therefore to be more willing to push more when you're in the middle of a difficult task.
Before moving forward, I would like to go on a slight tangent and talk about a certain type of tasks and skills that are often undervalued, especially in production-oriented environments: soft skills and what I like to call “blurry tasks.” These aren’t easy to define so I’ll work with negative space and start by explaining what they’re not. They are not your ability to create great environment designs. They are not your ability to re-topologize a full character in a day and they are not your anatomy knowledge. See where I’m going? Soft skills and blurry tasks are all those items that rarely get talked about but make the difference between an artist who’s good at doing art stuff and one that is a positive force that will make the difference in a team. It is writing an entry in your company wiki to make sure the whole team has access to a helpful resource. It is taking 15 minutes to chat with the artist who is going to model a character after your concept art, trying to learn more about their job in order to understand dependencies and make his or her life easier. It’s having lunch with the teammate whose dad is in the hospital and cheering him up. These things are hardly quantifiable yet immensely valuable. Therefore, make sure you value them too and don’t fall into the tendency of seeing only production tasks as meaningful work. As a side note, I mostly brought up things that apply for a studio environment but you’ll find soft skills and blurry tasks in a solo freelance career, too. Whether it’s researching your diet, going to an art event, reading Firestarter or having a deep discussion with a client to see if you could bring more to the table than just drawings and 3D assets, soft skills and blurry tasks are everywhere and they’re easy to dismiss as “not actual work” so make sure you do account for them in your day-to-day.
Now for long term self-assessment, we discussed previously that this is much easier for us to handle. Indeed, it doesn't require a rigid system acting as a shield from the dark little voice inside our head telling us we're garbage. Usually, I would recommend looking at your growth over a period of time no shorter than one year. That way, you'll be able to gloss over the day-to-day inconsistencies, such as moments of downtime, and focus on the bigger picture. The goal is to observe your overall trajectory. Ask yourself: "Given where I was last year and where I am now, have I taken significant steps towards my desired direction?" Be honest with yourself, even if it hurts and, on the contrary, especially even if you feel good about what you observe. If ever you're not sure, try to make a list of the projects you've finished and the year's accomplishments in general. It might be things you’ve learned, meaningful relationships you’ve strengthened, events you attended, anything even loosely connected to your journey. Another very popular exercise is to redraw/sculpt a piece that you did in the past and see how far you've come. It's usually a fairly "in your face" method of seeing your improvements that is very efficient to clear out any doubt you may be having. It can also be useful to ask a friend you trust to give you their unfiltered feedback.
One thing a lot of artists observe when looking back is that they’re effectively growing but not at the speed they would desire. Assuming we’re not talking about a junior artist disappointed with not having made it into Blizzard or Pixar after three years in the industry, there are usually two patterns that lead to slow progress: not working enough and not working smart. The first one is fairly simple to assess. If you’re working less than 40 hours a week and have time to binge watch and play games like mad, you’re not working enough. I would even argue that you can go beyond 40 hours providing that you don’t overdo it and make sure to stay healthy. It can be really interesting to push yourself quite hard for a very short period of time and observe the results. Still, keep in mind that anything above 60 hours becomes playing with your health and should be monitored mindfully. Working smart is a different beast and any efficiency issue you have can come from a wide variety of factors. Two of them are very common and worth discussing here: focus and organization.
Focus is a tough one because we’re living in a society where every business in town is competing for our attention. That, and the fact that our technology is enabling them to reach out to us constantly and break our flow of thoughts. In short, distractions are everywhere and they don’t want you to get shit done. If this is what’s hindering you, I would highly recommend diving into the subject and taking back control of your attention. Try working with a 25-min timer and while you do that, set your phone in airplane mode and shut down all social media. No one is going to die from your absence, trust me. Every 25 minutes, get a 5-min break and start over. If you want to learn more about the subject, I would highly recommend the book Deep Work. It does a great job of analyzing the issues related to focus and offers practical tools to become more efficient and less distracted. You may also want to look into mediation. A couple of minutes of emptying your mind and focusing on your breathing pattern can do a great job of setting you up for a few highly productive hours. In the end, learning to better focus is a little effort but you’ll soon realize that being able to do in two hours what you used to do in eight has freed you a lot of time to do more. Moreover, it will have freed you from the guilty feeling that you’ve wasted most of your day on meaningless things.
Onto organization. Not unlike focus, this is a subject worthy of books dedicated to itself exclusively. I’ll suggest a few at the end of this article but here are a couple of easy action points if organization is your nemesis. Start by sorting the various things you’ll do today in prioritized “to-do lists.” Every day, begin your day by creating a list for the day. You can also do your list the evening before. Similarly, if you have big goals to hit and things you don’t want to forget, make a weekly or a monthly list that will serve to prioritize your more high-level goals. In any case, keep your lists concise enough. You don’t want to list so many tasks that there’s no way you can achieve them. It’s about what you’re actually going to act upon today. Once you know how to visualize what needs doing, start with the biggest, most difficult, high-impact task. Always start with the most meaningful items. Don’t start by checking your email and clearing out small things. That would give you a false sense of accomplishment that will then hinder your productivity when you finally decide to tackle the stuff that actually matters. Making lists and prioritizing things to act upon are the two cornerstones of organization. Get this right and you’ll already be ahead of the pack.
Time to wrap this whole thing up! You now have a self-assessment system that functions at two resolutions. Assess yourself quantitatively on the short term and qualitatively on the long term. Following this system, you should be able to stay away from the dark voice in your head repeating to you endlessly that you’re no good when you’re actually doing great (notice I said “doing great” rather than “are great”). Another thing to keep in mind is that ideals and models are abstract and should remain inspirational guides rather than actual targets to hit. We have ideals at any given time and we are always inferior to them, even if we’re at the top of our field. It’s a trap from our ego and it’s on us work our way around it. I’ll leave you with a final thought from André Malraux: judging requires understanding and when we fully understand, we don’t want to judge anymore.
• Deep Work by Cal Newport
• Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy
• Manage Your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn K. Glei