A few days ago, I was feeling extremely frustrated with my work. It was a combination of several things: not having enough time to do the work I wanted to do, feeling like I hadn’t planned for shoots as much as I had wanted to, complaining about the opportunities some photographers have gotten that I felt were undeserving, etc. As I thought about this, and even as I began writing this post--titling the Google Doc, “Frustrations”--, I was reminded of a lesson I learned as a middle-schooler that always helped me keep my frustrations in perspective.
The story actually starts in fourth grade. It was my first year transitioning from ESL classes into regular English classes (I had moved to America from the Dominican Republic as a second grader), so it felt like a big leap and a great success when I made my first friend, a boy who would become my best friend for just that one year. He could draw the best Mortal Kombat characters I had ever seen, which made it easy to be his friend. So I started doing that, too. It was easy to draw them because several of the characters, the most popular ones being SubZero and Scorpion, were basically the exact same design, except for varying color schemes for their outfits, so if you learned how to draw one, you actually knew how to draw four or five characters. I would show my friend my drawings at school every morning and asked him to show me his, and eventually he stopped having drawings to show me. Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, nor did I understand how I felt, I realized later that what happened was that I had gotten better at drawing the characters he showed me and he must have lost his motivation to keep drawing. To this day, I find it somewhat tragic, but it was also disheartening because I would later realize that I thrived with competition, and my own work improved much more slowly when I didn’t have someone to make me push myself.
That became a common theme in my life. I would always look for someone to compete with, either directly or indirectly. If it was an actual rival, I loved it, and if I didn’t have a rival, I’d pick the best student in the class at whatever it was that I was focused on (drawing, basketball, and then in college, writing), and compete with them in my mind. But not everyone wanted to compete and there wasn’t always someone with whom to compete. That’s not to say that I was always the best at what I did, but rather that sometimes I was just the only one I knew that was interested in whatever I liked, so I needed to compete with myself; otherwise, I wouldn’t grow.
This became painfully clear when I was in Eighth grade, and was the only one among my friends that was obsessed with drawing Dragonball Z characters. At school, I would print out an illustration I liked from the TV show and then copy it at home and practice shading. It was easy to keep my ego satisfied with by reproducing the illustrations on my own because everyone at school was impressed, until one day, I tried drawing my own character, and it was terrible. I was literally flabbergasted and confused because I didn’t understand how I could copy the illustrations so well but couldn’t create an interesting character or even come up with an interesting pose to draw on my own. Somehow, I had the wherewithal to realize that there was a limit to what I could learn from simply copying the characters: I needed to practice composition and anatomy and character design all on my own, and decided from then on never to copy another illustration again. All my work would be either original designs or original illustrations of the characters I liked.
What I learned to do then is what I do to this day: I compete with myself. I say this not out of arrogance, but from a place of pragmatism. For one, it was too easy to grow content with my work when there was no competition around, which left me in a creative state of arrested development. Likewise, whenever I focused too much on a competitor, it fostered negative energy that was not always conducive to producing good work, and in fact could be toxic to my development as an artist. Of course, even now there are rivals from time to time and I will continually compare myself with the best in my field and aim as high as I can (I remember telling my creative writing professor that I wanted to beat my favorite writer, and she said, “How do you beat a writer?”). But even then, with the prevalence of social media in our lives, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not in direct competition with someone just because you follow them on Instagram. Which is a thought that should be both humbling and encouraging. It’s best to find one or two wholesome role models you admire and aim to learn from, and simply wish nothing but the best to those who you see succeeding in similar places as you.
I mentioned earlier that my friend and I were only friends for a year. He ended up moving back with his family to Puerto Rico at the end of the school year and that was that. I’ve never seen or heard from him again. In that time, though, he exposed me to so much art and music that shaped who I am to this day. But, honestly, I used to resent him for having given up on his drawing. Like before, I didn’t have these words, but what I felt and the way I’d later talk about it was that he had a weakness of character. He wanted to do something and quit just because someone was better, which was the wrong way, for me, of thinking of that situation. Maybe he was never meant to be an illustrator and it had just been something he did casually and then gave up, totally unrelated to me. Or maybe he just got interested in something else. He was obsessed with music and would make mixtapes of his favorite songs on the radio, so he could’ve just as easily gone in that direction, too. Either way, comparing ourselves to others was and is not conducive to creative development, and if he quit because he compared himself to me or if I improved by comparing myself to him, any positive outcomes from that are short lived and the negative ones can affect us for much longer. Growth will be frustrating, hence growing pains, but the only way we can meaningfully grow is by focusing on continuing to improve ourselves in light of ourselves. If you can say you’re a better person today than you were yesterday, then you’ve succeeded for that day. Just make sure you can say that every day and we can stay friends.