A Tale of Two Artists: Why Doesn’t Talent Equal Confidence?

A long time ago, back when I was an editor at Scholastic, I worked with two artists who were strikingly different.

One was preternaturally talented. I was always astounded at the natural fluidity and sheer delightfulness of his artwork.

The other artist had taken up illustration a little later in life and was still in the process of refining her style. I usually had to give her a lot of feedback because, to be honest, her work was uneven. Sometimes it was awkward and needed to be completely reworked.

This wasn’t the only difference between them. The other difference was their level of confidence.

The first artist, the one whose work seemed so effortless, was plagued by constant self-doubt. He did not take critiques well, to put it mildly. He tended to take any feedback personally, so I had to carefully phrase my suggestions to avoid him shutting down completely.

The second artist was much more even-keeled. Even though her work wasn’t as good and I had to ask her for substantial revisions, she never took it personally; she just went back to the drawing board, reworked her stuff, and came back to me after she had methodically worked through all the critiques.

I stopped working at Scholastic a long time ago, but I still check in to see how certain people I used to work with are doing. What is fascinating to me is that the artist who was so talented but had low self-confidence is not publishing at all right now. His career seems to have stalled.

The other artist has been chugging along. Her work has improved tremendously, and she’s becoming more and more successful. She’s published at least six original books and has more in the works.

I think about these two artists often because it is such a remarkable case study of how talent and confidence don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

What is Confidence?

Confidence is a state of mind where you respond to the world from a positive standpoint, seeing critiques and roadblocks as a way to learn and improve, not as a referendum on your value as a human being.

You have a lack of confidence when you believe that “constructive feedback” means that there is something fundamentally flawed with you, not simply something you need to improve in your work. Although you may not realize it consciously, you tend to think along the lines of, “Well, that just proves that I’m not a good artist/writer/person.”

Of course, the reality is that all of us have weaknesses, and all of us have the ability to improve — even in the areas of our greatest strengths!

Where Does a Lack of Confidence Come From?

I think it usually starts from messages we learned as a child. If we were strongly encouraged to focus on external validation — like getting good grades, winning the game, getting awards, etc — we eventually begin to depend on those external signals to believe that we are worthy.

If we were praised for being “smart” or “good” rather than complimented on how hard we worked or how persistent we were, we start to restrict ourselves to activities where we can be guaranteed to appear “smart” or “good.”

As a result of this, critiques or mistakes begin to feel like terrifying failure or rejection, rather than problems that can be solved.

You may recognize this as the phenomenon popularized by psychological researcher Carol Dweck. She pioneered the concept of the “fixed mindset” versus “growth mindset.”

People with a fixed mindset believe that your talents are a fixed entity. For example, you’re “good at reading, bad at math,” and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

People with a growth mindset believe their abilities are mutable. In other words, even if they started out struggling with math, if they work at it long enough and keep trying, they are eventually going to get much better — maybe even really good at it!

Having a growth mindset is highly conducive to confidence. Because instead of thinking “I don’t want to try unless I’m pretty sure I’ll be good at it” (which is almost impossible if you’ve never done this particular thing before), you think to yourself, “I want to try this, but since I’ve never done it before, I’m going to have to work hard at it in order to become good at it.”

The question is, how can you grow your confidence, or start developing a growth mindset, when you’ve been stuck in a mental pattern of self-doubt?

Happily, there are specific, concrete exercises you can do to transform those mental patterns of self-doubt and create a deep-seated sense of confidence.

How to Build Your Confidence

#1: The Success Log

The first exercise is to keep a success log. This is a journal or spreadsheet or even just a daily mental exercise that you do every day, where you ask yourself two questions:

“What are three things I did well today?”
“What’s the most important thing I plan to do tomorrow, and how can I improve how I do it?”
People who have a lot of self-doubt tend to talk to themselves very negatively. The key is to start developing the habit of focusing on the positive.

In the beginning, it may feel funny, especially if you’ve never asked yourself on a regular basis, “What did I do well today?”

Trust me, though — developing this habit of talking to yourself in a compassionate, encouraging way will pay enormous dividends in your creative work.

Personally, every night, when I lie down in bed, the first thing I try to do is review three things I did well during the day. Then I think of one important thing I plan to do the next day and how I can improve the way I approach it. Finally, I take a deep, slow breath, and “let go” of my planning mind.

#2: Focus on What You CAN Control

The second “hack” for improving your confidence is to focus on goals you can control, not goals you can’t control.

What’s the difference between the two? Goals you can control involve the process. Goals you can’t control involve the results.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a writer, and you want go get a book deal. That’s the result you want.

Well, you aren’t a publisher, so you can’t control whether or not you get offered a book deal.

But you CAN control the process of submitting your book for a deal. You can control:

  • how much effort you put into researching the best way to craft a book proposal;
  • how hard you work on your book proposal or manuscript;
  • how much feedback you get from thoughtful peers and how carefully you follow up on revisions;
  • how many proposals you send out;
  • how consistent you are in developing your platform (i.e., your website, your marketing outreach, your fan base)
  • how conscious you are in building a positive mindset and finding ways to overcome the discouraging moments (which are inevitable).

Those are a lot of things over which you have control.

The last point — building a positive mindset and finding ways too overcome discouragement — is the most important. Unfortunately, for many people, it is the part they pay least attention to.

Don’t be one of those people. Take your mental well-being very seriously. Make it your first priority and that’s what will enable you to move forward relentlessly on the other “process” goals.

#3: Find Your Peers

My final tip is to find a peer group and meet with them regularly.

Many creative types — whether they’re an artist, a writer, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur — spend a lot of time working by themselves. It’s lonely, and worst of all, it can be self-reinforcing.

When you spend a lot of time alone, you’re in your head a lot. The longer you wait, the harder it gets to reach out and forge connections.

On the other hand, having the opportunity to talk on a regular basis with people to whom you can relate is a huge boon. It gives you the chance to unload all your fears, vent about your frustrations, and ask the questions that are keeping you stuck — and you can trust that you’ll get an empathetic response.

We NEED empathetic connections. People who understand us and support us. And those people aren’t necessarily our friends and family. In order to move forward in significant ways, we need to reach beyond the people who are close to us by chance, and develop close relationships more purposefully, with kindred spirits.

This takes time. You must be willing to invest time and energy in these relationships in order to reap their full rewards. This is why I recommend that you “meet with them regularly.” Once a week would be ideal, but at the very least, once every two weeks or once a month.

Start a writing circle. A mastermind group. An artists’ meetup.

Over time, these relationships will become a major bulwark to your self-confidence.