Have you ever looked around at the work of others and felt like yours isn’t measuring up? Has this ever caused your passion for your work to wane?
Benchmarking can be a useful method for helping you understand where you stand with regard to your peers and heroes. By scanning the landscape and comparing yourself to others, you can better understand how your work is tracking with that of others, and re-direct your efforts to better help you meet your goals. In this sense, competition can be your friend.
However, peripheral vision can also be a curse when it begins to draw you off-course. It’s one thing to look to your left and right in order to understand the context for your work, and another thing altogether to become obsessed with the work of everyone around you. Over time, it’s easy to become discouraged in your own work as you over-compare it to the work of others who are farther down the path.
In [amazon_link id=”1591846242″ target=”_blank” ]The Accidental Creative[/amazon_link] I called this dynamic Expectation Escalation, and named it as one of the three Assassins that can destroy your drive to create. It’s one thing to use the work of others as a benchmark, and another thing altogether to allow it to paralyze you when you feel like you’re not measuring up.
Here are a few ways that Expectation Escalation can affect you:
1. It may cause you to abandon projects too early. If you see your in-process work as inferior when compared to someone else’s finished product, you may be tempted to kick it to the curb. However, when you do this you fail to recognize that every shiny, brilliant product someone else created was also the result of a long process of trial and error. It’s likely the person behind the admired project also experienced similar kinds of trepidation, but pushed through it anyway. You have to do the same. As author Jon Acuff put it, “Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
2. It may cause you to drift off course. When you’re running, it’s important to keep your eyes ahead. You may use your peripheral vision to pay attention to other runners, but you need to keep your eyes fixed on the direction you’re running. Why? Because you tend to run toward wherever you’re looking. If you shift your eyes 30 degrees to the right, you’ll eventually find that you’re drifting in that direction. The same thing happens when you become obsessed with the work of others. You may find that you’re losing sight of your own vision and adopting theirs as a surrogate.
3. It can squeeze the white space out of your life. When you become obsessed with matching the brilliance or output of the people around you, you ratchet up your expectations to the point that you have no room in your life for thinking, breathing, and synthesizing insights. Instead, you are frantically engaged in a game of “keep up”. This happens all the time in organizations I work with. The slow ratcheting up of expectations wrings the white space out of the life of the team, and soon everyone is simply cranking out work in order to keep up. No one is focused on possibility because they are simply trying to match the ever-increasing expectations of their organization. Innovation is snuffed out.
So how can you use your peripheral vision in a healthy way?
Look around for peers or heroes against whom to benchmark your work, but be aware of expectation escalation. When you look at work you admire, ask yourself four questions:
1. What are they doing that I love? What qualities of their work inspire awe or admiration in me? What draws me to those qualities?
2. What can I learn from them? Is there something they are doing that I can apply to my own process?
3. What skills do I need to develop to be more like them? Is there something I could work on in my unnecessary creating time, or on my own, that might help me unlock my ability to produce better, more inspired work?
4. How does all of this apply to my personal through-line, or the arc of my own work? Once you’ve looked peripherally, tie it all back to your work and see how it applies. Look back at the road ahead of you with your newfound inspiration and use it as fuel, not as a means of rejecting your in-process work.
I do this with fellow writers and artists all the time, and it’s proven absolutely invaluable in my own work.
Don’t allow the slow ratcheting-up of expectations to paralyze you. Use the work of your peers and heroes as fuel, and don’t allow it to trip you up or cause you to drift off-course.
Last modified: December 1, 2022