can i get a side of confidence with that?

January 20, 2011 |  Category:   art + design life

Something sort of weird is happening as I get older. I’m becoming less confident as a designer. Shouldn’t the opposite be happening? I know that some of my friends are totally rolling their eyes at me. I know because I’ve seen you do it, but I’m totally dead serious when I say that it’s become an issue to the point that it sometimes feels crippling. I don’t know if it’s because there are so many younger, more talented and more creative designers out there, or if it’s because I always felt like I reluctantly fell into this career and never had my heart in it, or if it’s because I feel a bit out of touch with what’s going on in the design world, a world that I don’t really feel a part of in the first place. It takes effort and time to be on top of things, to be out there, to stay relevant and attend events and conferences. I just don’t have the time – or to be bluntly honest – the interest. This isn’t about talent. I know I have a body of work and experience of over 14 years in the biz to stand behind, but I think I’ve always dealt with low self esteem issues throughout my life in varying degrees. It just surprises me that it’s still something that I have to fight against, that I still have to work really hard on building self confidence. All of this still, at age 40. I thought this stuff was supposed to get easier.

I constantly think that I want out of this career. It’s true that I do eventually, but if I’m really being honest with myself then I know that a large part of it is because I’m afraid of failing and not being able to deliver on a project. But I’m learning. I actually failed at something quite recently. Normally it would have haunted me and I would have obsessed over it, but I just let it go and didn’t make a monumental deal out of it with a big fat FAIL sign over my head. The world didn’t shake and I was able to brush away any fleeting thoughts that I totally suck as a designer and then I quickly moved on. No time to dwell.

When I look at the way Claudine draws, I see a lot of myself in her. It’s scary. Already at age 4, she has this need to draw everything exactly as she sees it in her head, and when she can’t she gets extremely frustrated, sometimes to the point of meltdowns. As some of you may have seen, she has this incredible ability to draw for her age, really detailed stuff, but when she makes “mistakes”, she’ll wail that it isn’t perfect over and over again. I tell her that it doesn’t have to be perfect, that her drawings are wonderful and that she can try again if something isn’t working for her, but it’s often no consolation. She’ll cry because she can’t get the left leg of the girl she’s drawing to realistically look like it’s pushing the scooter, but bloody hell, she’s 4! Of course she’s having a hard time with that! I don’t know where this idea of “perfect” comes from. It’s not anything that we teach the kids. Because I know how much pressure I put on myself as a kid, I’m pretty careful about not expressing any expectations, being overly critical or pressuring the girls into anything. I worry about Claudine’s high self expectations at such an early age and her fear of making mistakes on paper with pencil.

I laugh at the irony of the fact that I’m dealing with the same issues.

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  • jenny | aubrey road January 20, 2011 at 3:50 am

    i remember being just like claudine in that way when i was young, probably for as long as i can remember and, to an extent, i still feel that same frustration many years later. all the time. maybe i always will!

  • Emma January 20, 2011 at 6:14 am

    I can so relate to this. I have always been hard on myself, since I was little – so hard that I start to not enjoy the things I’m passionate about because I’m too busy being over critical. I have to tell myself to lighten up and gain some perspective.

    It really is a personality trait more than something that’s taught – some people are just more confident and I’m so envious of that!

    Thanks for this post – sometimes I’m so in my own head I forget that other people feel exactly the same way.

  • Caddy January 20, 2011 at 6:58 am

    I’m about to graduate from university and I feel the same way. I think back to my high school self and see how she seemed to have so much more confidence and belief in herself. I’m afraid of failing to and its something I have to fight against.

    I found this quote yesterday that I think is great for reminding me to take risks and be more adventurous, “Do not make fear-based decisions, because you will just hinder yourself from being everything that you can be.” (From an interview with Kelly Ripa in Good Housekeeping’s Novemeber 2010 issue)

  • Sara Tejada January 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Hi Jenna,

    I feel the same exact way. Sometimes I don’t even submit my work as proposals because I think to myself there is no way they’ll accept it. Someone has said to me “do not close the doors yourself”. Sometimes even if we don’t believe our work is good other people do.

    I saw some of your work and I loved it. I wish I was as clever as you 🙂

  • Fiona January 20, 2011 at 8:04 am

    I used to do the same thing when I was little. My Mum is very talented at drawing and when we used to draw together I would get upset if my drawings didn’t look as good as hers…drawing “horses” specifically. I’ve ended up as a graphic designer regardless of the meltdowns though 🙂

  • rebeccanyc January 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

    I think all successful people (read: over-achievers) have this trait! I have a little sign on my dressing table at work “BANISH FEAR, SING IN PUBLIC”. I’m an opera singer for crying out loud, I do it everyday at the largest opera house in the world, I am very comfortable on that stage, no problem. But ask me to sing at a party or just casually? No WAY! I will torment myself, don’t know what to sing, it won’t be perfect, blah blah blah blah. It will bug me for DAYS! so I don’t do it. Most of my friends who do not work with me have never heard me sing ONCE. And I am 52 years old. You’d think I would be over it already. I’m not, and I never will be. Basta Cosi.

    So, little Miss Claudine comes by this honestly. Who better than you to help her through it?

  • Anissa January 20, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Your blog is so amazingly honest. In the details, we find common ground. I’m not a designer, but the feeling of failure and its connection to low self esteem is something that I’ve been grappling with ever since I was a couple of years out of college. You are lucky in the sense that, even with these feelings, you ARE a designer and you have been able to make a beautiful life for yourself, work included. In my own life, it’s kept me trapped as an office manager for a law office for the past ten years for fear of failing at anything I truly had any interest in. Your blog, your design website, your home, your photography all attest to your skills~ you are amazingly talented. Your fears do raise the question of how to get past those feelings that keep us from reaching our potential . . .

  • rebecca January 20, 2011 at 9:27 am

    i’m in the middle of completely making a career shift. it’s never too late my dear!! do what makes you happy!!

  • Teapotkid January 20, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Hey Jenna, I’m on the cusp of turning 40 and I too feel my confidence waning. I think I used to be cheekier and more self-assured. I don’t know whether it’s been since I had a kid or just seeing friends and family around me–all of whom are good people–have crappy luck, but I feel timid now and not at all confident that things will turn out ok. Aren’t we supposed to be becoming more confident in our 40’s and 50’s?

  • sarah January 20, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Jenna, you’re posts are always so real and honest. I absolutely adore them. I don’t have much advice because I feel like I’m exactly the same in so many ways. I think a lot of us who are in design/creative fields (and maybe other careers as well) have personalities that make us very critical of our own work. I’m sure it doesn’t help that years of art or design school of any type include semester ending critiques in front of our peers. It’s impossible not to compare yourself to others! That said… I’d just like to say THANKS for reminding me (and others) that I’m not the only one who feels that way about my work. Hopefully remembering that you aren’t the only one out there dealing with these issues will help you as well!
    p.s. your photography is truly inspiring! i look forward to your blog posts every morning 🙂

  • katie January 20, 2011 at 11:12 am

    i think my fear of failure has prevented me from attempting things over the past few years – and that needs to stop. when i’m done with my architecture licensing exams [hopefully this june], i really need to focus on being more creative outside of work.

  • billy January 20, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Jenna, thank you so much for your genuine and heartfelt post. It takes a lot of courage to show such honesty.

    I’ve been thinking about internal and external self esteem lately.

    If I base my self-worth on external things (job, money, how pretty I am, how smart I am) then I’m only as worthwhile as my last performance. If self esteem is a function of external performance, then only the rich and powerful can justify a positive self image. By that criteria Donald Trump and Adolph Hitler would have more worth than Mother Teresa.

    I ain’t buying it.

    Better I think to learn from our mistakes (no mistakes = no learning) celebrate our successes and realize that neither defines us.

  • Selkie January 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Jenna, I am not surprised that so many of us creative types struggle as you do. I am turning 60 this year. Last year I went through hell with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and had to learn to take my “What if…?” ‘s and throw them out the window. It has helped me gain courage, skill, and confidence in all areas of my life. I have just tackled watercolor for the FIRST TIME! Why not before now? Because I was afraid of failing. Terrible loss, it seems to me now, as I plunge in, enjoy them immensely, and don’t worry about “What if I fail?” It is a hard lesson.

  • Lauren January 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Jenna, I really liked this post. We become older, and that whole wisdom-thing kicks in and we realize we aren’t as “all that” as we thought we once were. I like to call it “perspective” not “lack of confidence.” I’m facing the same thing at work as I’m picking up some marketing/graphic design responsibilities (which I haven’t touched in 7-8 years! YIKES!), and feeling very less-than.

  • Renita January 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Sounds like vacation time …

  • Esther January 20, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    While I am reading this post, I was nodding and saying ‘Yes’ from beginning to end. I am 24, and as I read all the replies I guess I am included in younger group.
    I struggle so hard when I go to interviews or just to express my work. I really think, I am not good enough to get any design jobs. I still do. That’s why I am working in business design industry and I find no creativity for 2 years. And I feel wrong to be in here. I should be in design ‘studio’ rather than office. But I am just not good enough. It is really frustrating…
    That low self esteem still holds me back and sometimes I just feel sorry for myself.
    (Please don’t think I’m loser :)) But all the replies and your post makes me think more now about changing. It will be hard. Very hard, but I will try.. Thank you again. And I am your hardcore fan.
    From Sydney Australia.

  • Anna @ D16 January 20, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Oh man, Jenna. I can relate to all of this so well — both you and Claudine. My lack of confidence as a designer and my fear of producing imperfect work of any kind has been my biggest hindrance throughout my entire life.

    Honestly, it’s a large part of the reason why I work in-house rather than freelance. If I FAIL, there’s always going to be a buffer/bureaucracy in place to prevent my mistakes from causing any real damage.

    I remember being very little and crying over not being able to make a drawing that looked like I imagined it looking. Over time, I stopped trying to do it anymore, and now I never ever draw…because I’m afraid it won’t be right.

  • rebeccanyc January 21, 2011 at 12:00 am

    And yet Anna @ D16, you are one of the most creative women in the blog-o-sphere. You and Jenna are my absolute go-tos for good, creative reads. Gets my creative juices going everytime.

  • Annie From Seattle January 21, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I liked your line about expectations and passing judgement on Claudine’s work. That Tiger Mom WSJ essay has been bouncing around in my head for two weeks, in a horrible way.

  • Jenna January 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Rebecca, that does not surprise me. It’s much harder to perform in a smaller intimate setting for people you know than to perform in a larger venue to a crowd to an unknown audience. The audience becomes a blur, an abstract. At least that’s what I found when I was playing the piano.

  • Chickything January 21, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Honestly, I really think that this has something to do about youth and not being afraid to take risks and the confidence of being oneself and not trying to be anyone else because really, there is nothing to prove and nothing to lose when you are young. As we age, we lose all these characteristics because there is more to lose, we cannot fail so we stay on the safe side and our creativity suffers. If only we can be as unafraid as the young ones then maybe we can make better art than the newbies.
    Easier said than done.

  • Zooey January 22, 2011 at 11:34 am

    This was a timely post. Thanks Jenna and everyone for sharing.

    I’m going to be thirty soon and am dealing with these very same issues. But I keep telling myself that if I keep up with the “I’m not good enough”, I’m not going to get anywhere. Some days are harder than others at maintaining that mantra, though!

  • veggietestkitchen January 23, 2011 at 2:05 am

    I painted into my late teens and faced similar issues as you describe with your daughter. My dad used to tell me that an artist never likes his own work, and I felt some comfort in hearing that. I gave up on painting for other things in life that were more process oriented and easy to master (i.e. the SAT, college apps, etc) and recently tried to pick up my brushes, it’s been difficult. I have all the same issues, only now I’m more likely to give it up for good.

    Recently there was an article in the WSJ about the superiority of Asian mothers, it received a lot of negative comments, but the mother wrote something that I find so true which is that she believes in forcing her kids to stick with something because its only after all the practice and the slogging and the dealing with the insecurities and overcoming them because you just worked through all the possible ways you might fail- that one really begins to enjoy their activity, whatever it may be. Yah, it’s okay if the leg isn’t just right and to feel bad about it, but not to give up, because if you stick through it you’ll eventually get it right and you’ll kill the fear of failure with success, sort of how you were able to let your recent situation kind of roll off your back because you went back to practice on another project. I sometimes tutor math students and see the same thing all the time. I always tell them that the process of learning is about indenting grooves into your brain, and that comes from struggling with the material. If you aren’t struggling then you aren’t learning. And if you don’t truly learn the stuff you’ll get a C on your exam!!

  • Alicia @culinarybliss January 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    This book could be a good way to reframe the idea of mistakes:

  • Em January 29, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    I’m in my early 30s and i thought i’d be over it by now! can’t recommend this enough. i laughed when i first read the descriptions, i recognised it all. the exercises are great.

  • Visty February 2, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I suppose it’s okay to feel that way as long as you can fight your way through it. I feel disappointed in my work so much that then I feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. I see in my youngest, already at just turned 4, that frustration when her art doesn’t look like what she intended. Neither of my two older kids had this issue at that age. As long as she can try again, or draw something she CAN be proud of, I imagine it can be a driving force for her rather than a roadblock.

  • Milady February 10, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    great post and thought-provoking. I am a designer too and think the same way a lot of the time. I think we are critical of everything ‘designed’ around us, because it is kind of our job, but not good if it tears us to pieces! I guess this is why it is important to occasionally take in (and bask!) in the praise others give us, just to redress the balance!
    on a lighter side, I remember two wonderful ladies in a flamenco class struggling with a step, and debating with themselves that as successful mothers and artists, why they felt their self-esteem to be so totally wrapped up in making one foot go after the other!

  • Karyn March 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    Oh wow, I could have written this same post! I’m 40 and have been struggling with those same confidence issues with my work, unexpectedly in a way. Why now? Should be over it, I think. I also have a 4-year-old who draws for hours at a time, says she wants to be an artist, and will wail when her drawings aren’t “perfect”. I can relate to her frustration, but I somehow don’t know how best to help her through it. Anyways, I’ve been away from your blog for far too long and have been playing catch-up this evening. Thank you for writing what you write.