Why I Tend To Think My Work Is Crap Over Time
An Essay on Self-Doubt
Written by Russell Shaw
Published on April 24, 2013
Last Edited on October 27, 2013
For much of my life, I was taught that “doubt” was a negative thing to possess. But as I have created more work over time, I have learned to respect the retention of some level of doubt in everything that I do. Doubt stirs up new potential for what could be next.
It sounds strange or masochistic to some that I largely dislike my body of work. I think a lot of my past work is, frankly, just not very good. But before you think this is unhealthy self-doubt, let me explain.
The work of a creative professional leaves the artist’s fingerprint on a completed project, but the fingerprint is of her identity at the point in time of creation. A single work is created in a certain season of life — and once it is completed, it stands as a monument to where the creator was when she worked on it. It is a benchmark for the thought processes, interests, and abilities of the artist during the time it took to complete.
What is interesting is that every project, every expression of the creative, is an intense learning experience that necessitates change over time. The artist goes in on one end, needing to cut off from herself the growth of an idea that has festered over time, and then she comes out the other end a new person, having managed to extract the idea by bringing it to completion. Therefore, while the project clearly shows who the creator was at the time that it was made, it is impossible for the work to indicate that this is who the creator still is after it has been finished — because the very nature of the process means that the artist has grown and changed as a result of the expression.
She is no longer “there” anymore — wherever “there” was when she was creating any one thing. She has grown past “there” and moved on to a different plane of thinking and working, having been bettered by the work of the past.
I think this is probably why a lot of artists seem overly critical of what they create. Unfortunately, many of them have these qualms with their past work but do not understand the reason why — so they just assume that their work is not as good as it should be. In reality, the reason that they see their past work as having lack in some places is because, after completing the work, they themselves have become better artists and can now judge their work with eyes that have been enlightened through the process. Every piece that the artist creates opens her eyes to something new, and pushes her to see the next endeavor as something better, stronger, and deeper.
Working as a creative professional is a continual process and pursuit — never a destination. When we fail to question our projects, or estimate that we have little more to correct or to learn, we reach a dangerous plateau where the creative process is no longer changing us while we work. And if that is the case, it begs the question, “Are we really trying to create from the ideas within us, or have we gotten to a place of merely manufacturing and reproducing creative just for the sake of getting things done?”
Instead, applying the pressure of doubt allows us to better understand how to move forward. Doubt makes us question, and questioning helps us dig deeper for new ways of thinking. It is not with disdain that we reflect on our past projects, but is rather like the way that we remember our childhood mistakes: with a tinge of nostalgia over our youthfulness, and an embrace of the failures, knowing that they produced the lessons and the growth that make us who we are today.
“Working as a creative professional is a continual process and pursuit — never a destination.”