Monday, October 7, 2013

I'm Not Good Enough: Designer Self-Doubt

Self-doubt. It's something we all struggle with in every area of our lives including our professions.

I am no exception. 

My story begins in December 2007, when I obtained my B.S. in Graphics Technology at the age of twenty-seven. I was married and living in West Virginia at the time. I had only completed one semester of college after high school, so once we were settled in West Virginia I enrolled in a local college. Initially, I pursued a degree in Business Administration. I had held several retail management positions so it seemed like a logical choice. However, I quickly realized that Business Administration wasn't quite my thing.

I flipped through the college's degree book, wondering what major to pursue next. As I did so, I started to reflect on my younger days when I had been super creative. Drawing, writing, and even creating dance routines to Paula Abdul. (Don't judge me! You know you did it, too!) So with a "What the heck!" I switched my major to Graphics Technology and never looked back.

However - I was in West Virginia. Where the only artistic culture is arts and crafts, not modern design of any kind. Heck, even if you want modern furniture you are out of luck. Everything is country, country, country.

Faced with a non-existent pool of job opportunities, I started a small freelance business. I even landed my first client, author and speaker Cindi McMenamin, before I graduated. But the lack of a design community really stinted how I saw my work. I would compare my sites - which weren't half-bad, really, for a beginner - to sites I would see online. Without a support system that could encourage me or keep me tethered in reality, I cultivated a skewed perspective of my work. (I was also married to a man who wasn't encouraging, which didn't help either.)

Then, in 2011, my husband announced that he wanted a divorce. Not having a steady source of income, I packed up what would fit in my CR-V and my mother's mini-van, and moved in with her back home in Pennsylvania. I continued to do sporadic freelance work, still charging way below what I was worth, not believing that I had what it took to get a "real" design job.

Fortunately, I have another "man" in my life, named Jesus, who began to show me that wasn't true. (Wait. Did she just drop the "J" word? Yes, yes she did. Just roll with it and keep reading.) By His grace, I began to see that, "Hey. My websites are artistic. I do have talent and skills." Etc.

In the end, though, Jesus used necessity to spur me into actually pursing a full-time web design job. As my mother had previously done to my two sisters, she kicked me out after a year for no concrete reason. Suddenly, I was forced to seek a job in my field in order to survive. Eventually, I landed the job of Marketing Director for a local equipment company.

The job, however, only lasted a month and a half as they eliminated the position. It was a blessing, really, as the environment was horrible. But it had its use on my resume. A month later, I become the Webmaster for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, where I currently work.

I've come a long way since my days in West Virginia, but I still struggle with self-doubt. After all, this is my first "real" job in the design field. I'm starting to network with other Pittsburgh creatives, which is great. But it's also difficult not to compare myself to others - an unfair comparison given most have more experience than I do. At least in a non-freelance setting.

So how do I deal? One way is that I have a Google Doc that lists all of my skills and talents. Something I refer to when needed. It includes everything from web design skills (including responsive web design, CSS, HTML and a natural ability to create user-friendly sites), to graphic design skills (i.e. Adobe Creative Suite), to social media knowledge, to marketing expertise. It also lists my experience working with clients, running my own business, etc.

The Google Doc reminds me that I have quite a lot to offer, even when that doesn't feel like the truth some days.

In the end, the bottom line is that we are all continuously learning and growing - no matter what field we're in. But at the same time, we also all have something to bring to the table today. The key is not to compare yourself to others in a detrimental way, but to focus on growing. Know your strengths and weaknesses, but be humble enough to learn from those who know more than you do, and keep moving forward.

In his recent book "Start," Jon Acuff candidly discusses how Learning leads to Editing, which leads to Mastering, which leads to Harvesting. Meaning, you start learning what general field you want to pursue, you whittle that down to what you want to be an expert in, you master it, and then you reap the harvest and guide others.

But the key is to start moving forward - and to keep going. And going up! Not backwards, sideways, or any other crazy way. Trudge upward and onward!

Don't let self-doubt keep you stranded on a plateau!

This post was inspired by @emilylevenson's talk at Pittsburgh PodCamp8.