You're Not Struggling Alone
If you're worried you don't have to worry
I’m always uncomfortable when someone says I’m good at writing.
I know I must be somewhat okay at it. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be as many of you here. And every now and then, I’ll cobble together a sentence that I reread and think, “okay yeah, that one was pretty good.”
But in general, I don’t think of myself as that good of a writer because I’m always comparing myself to someone better. I don’t have the descriptiveness of DFW or the breadth of expertise of Hofstadter or even really any fiction writing skills.
When someone says my stuff is good, I want to believe them, but unfortunately, my default reaction is, “well, you probably haven’t read that much good writing then.” It’s a pretty mean thing to think, I know. I don’t like that I think it. But it’s where my mind goes.
I’m not sure how bad skepticism of yourself is, though. There’s an adage in personal finance: “if you’re worried, you don’t need to be worried, and if you’re not worried, you should be worried.” A similar framing could apply to good creative work. If you are worried about your mediocrity, then you don’t have to worry about mediocrity. If you aren’t worried about mediocrity, then you’re probably mediocre.
I don’t buy the advice that you should try to treat work like play or take it less seriously. Play is for amateurs. If you’re treating it lightly, it won’t be good. I have never, ever heard someone truly great describe their work as easy or fun or light. Moments of fun? Of course. But the greatness comes from pushing through the suck.
Imagine you care so deeply about someone that unexpectedly losing them would push you to the brink. You cannot imagine being happy for years if they were lost in a car crash. You would collapse and break down and wish it were you and not in some sappy movie way to show off to others but in the way where you actually truly mean it because there’s nothing else you can say to describe how awful you feel.
There is no true, deep love without opening yourself up to that pain. And you cannot truly love your work without its mediocrity or failure potentially destroying you.
Treating it lighter is letting fear win. It’s leaning away from love instead of leaning into it. But you also can’t let love and obsession destroy you. You have to find balance.
The only salve I’ve found is remembering I’m not alone. Everyone I look up to has examples they feel painfully inadequate against. Getting great comes with a suffering you must embrace if you truly care.
If you have anyone you envy, look up to, or aspire towards, don’t fall into the trap of thinking they have it all figured out. That they’re completely happy with their work. That they think they’re good. They’re struggling with the same thoughts you are. Maybe they’re even more tortured by it. There’s always some bigger fish to compare yourself with.
It only ends when you get complacent and stop pushing yourself. The longer you can endure, the better you’ll get. Enduring sucks. It’s not fun. But it helps to remember you’re not struggling alone.
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