If you’re not careful, the fear of competition can creep up and get the best of you. It’s easy to let negative thoughts seep in because everywhere you look, there’s another mega-talented designer sharing their latest and greatest project.
We all have bad days where self doubt takes over and questions like these become overpowering:
Am I good enough?
Where do I fit in?
Will I have enough work?
These are all valid concerns but I can assure you that there’s enough work to go around. And yes, you are good enough.
Competition is loaded — it’s something that both pushes me and scares me. I’ve always been a super competitive person by nature which has major benefits but it also carries plenty of weaknesses. The biggest benefit is obvious — I constantly challenge myself to do better. The more hours I dedicate to my craft, the better results I see both in client work and my confidence. The downside to competitive feelings is that it’s sometimes difficult to shut off comparisons no matter how hard you work, which can make you feel like you’ve fallen short even when in reality, you’re doing well.
When I think back to feeling competitive in the design field, 3 different events stick out in my mind:
1. In 2006, I remember sitting in class, noticing that some of the students were much better at the Adobe Suite than me. This was a good case of competition. I knew that to be good enough to get hired once I finished the program, I had to step it up. Working harder did pay off and got me hired a week after I graduated.
2. In 2007, during my design internship I was seated next next to guys who had a solid 5 years of agency experience. Even though I was still in school, I was fearful that I’d never get to their level and every day that I was asked to do something I didn’t know how to do, my stomach would sink. I felt like a fraud. I was really hard on myself and felt the sting from art directors when I didn’t do something right but once again, it turned out to be a good thing because I learned fast. Sink or swim!
3. In 2012, I would start my mornings at my full-time job clicking through the blogs of freelancers I admired. While their work inspired me, it also made me jealous because no matter how hard I worked, I never had enough free time outside of my job to produce the projects they were getting to do. That unhappiness was uncomfortable at the time but also a blessing because it pushed me to eventually leave my job and start my own studio.
Competition is a normal part of who we are — it feels good to try your best. Stretching yourself can produce results you never knew you were capable of. And as you can gather from the above stories, even though competition can make us squirm in the moment, it can also force us to seek out what we really want.
If comparison is something that you struggle with, these 3 tips will help become a stronger competitor:
1. Specialize your offerings.
You know that saying, jack of all trades, master of none? Don’t be that designer! The easiest way to win at the game of competition is to fine-tune what you offer. It’s a novel idea in a MORE! MORE! MORE! focused world but instead of offering a little bit of everything, pinpoint the things you excel at and just offer those. Go small. Be clear about what you stand for. Make it easy for your tribe of dream clients to cut through the noise and find you. As an example, Branch focuses in 3 specific areas: branding, print design and web design. If a client needs something else, I have a list of referrals at the ready. Don’t water down what you do by stretching yourself too thin!
The much welcome outcome to specialization is that the more projects you do, the sooner you’ll be considered an expert in those areas. And when you’re an expert, you can charge more!
It feels so good to do less, produce higher quality work and outsource the rest.
2. Produce work that makes you feel good.
When feelings of jealousy take over after you see a really great project someone else did, it’s important to ask yourself why. Do you feel like you’re not talented enough? That you’ll never get those types of clients? Usually, it stems from being unsatisfied with where you are at in your own career.
I know that when I felt my worst, I had a stable job with great pay but that wasn’t the issue — the work just wasn’t pushing me creatively. I’d check blogs on my lunch hour and come across the work I wanted to create. While it made me miserable at the time, I started to make changes by taking on small, creative freelance projects on my own time. One of the first was a brand of lipsticks and once I began releasing work I really loved, it opened up more beauty and lifestyle brand opportunities which I’d been wanting for years.
Producing work you love will leave you feeling so satisfied that you won’t even care what the competition is doing. Run your own race.
3. Remember that there’s room for everyone.
Even when I come across new talent and am afraid that I’m not good enough and just maybe, the work will finally dry up once and for all, I’m always wrong. The inquiries keep coming, the repeat clients always return with new project ideas and somehow, things just keep flowing.
There are so many different areas you can specialize in and so many different ways you can work. You just have to decide what you want and be relentless.
Do you want to work for yourself, work in-house at a company or work in an agency with lots of different clients?
Do you want to be a brand designer, a web developer, a letterer, a production artist, a producer, an art director or something else altogether?
Whatever path you want to take is possible. Remember, no one person or company can do all the work that needs to be done.
Produce solid work you’re proud of, share it regularly and make it easy for clients to book you. It’s that simple.
The bottom line: competition can feel intimidating. If one of your competitors does something amazing, instead of being happy for them, it can be easy to feel undermined. Turn that negative into a positive and use it as motivation to step up your own game. Come up with new ideas. Market yourself in new ways.
When you push yourself to produce better work, the right kinds of clients will take notice.
Your turn: what tips to you have for keeping competition feeling positive and avoiding the comparison trap?
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Photo: Lakshal Perera.