Nine Things You Need to Break Into Children's Book Publishing as an Author, Illustrator, or Graphic Novelist

9 Things You Need to Break Into Children's Publishing

A little while ago, I read a new picture book, The Dreamer, by Korean artist Il Sung Na. It tells the story of a wistful, inventive pig who loves to watch birds soaring through the air.

The Dreamer by Il Sung Na, a children's book about following your dreams“If only I could fly, too,” he thinks.

Before long, his dream turns into an actual goal: he’s determined to figure out how to fly.

He starts clumsily. His first ramshackle contraptions do nothing but break. He gets discouraged, but some friends come to his aid and give him new ideas.

He tries again. And again. Each time getting better and better.

Then one day, with a crowd of friends watching, he straps himself into his latest invention, a hang glider-like machine with big red wings. This time, he runs down a hill and then ascends magnificently into the air.

And that first flight is just the beginning. He continues perfecting his vision, devising new vehicles of various sorts, and soon inspires other animals to take to the air.

I was just about to close the book when the author bio on the back flap caught my eye:

“As a kid [Il Sung Na] loved to draw, but it wasn’t until he visited a London bookstore in college that he discovered picture books were his calling. The real-life trial-and-error pursuit of that calling was the inspiration behind this book.”

That’s one of the things I love most about kids books and comics -- they offer all the life lessons you’ll ever need, in just a few illustrated pages!

In its own allegorical way, The Dreamer encapsulates many of the necessary elements you need in order to succeed as a writer or artist. Things like a long-term vision; a willingness to fail; a community of friends to keep you going. Although soft skills and mindset might seem secondary to talent and technical skills, they are actually extremely important. 

I talk to a lot of people who are just getting started in their careers, or trying to “relaunch” themselves. A lot of times, their questions for me are about narrow, methodological details like:

  • “How do you land a literary agent?” 
  • “How do you write a good book proposal?” 
  • “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”

I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as helpfully as possible, I subtly try to steer them toward different questions -- better questions. These are questions like: 

  • “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
  • “How can I be more giving in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?” 
  • “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”

Building your dream career as an author or artist is totally possible. But one problem with creative people is that they have very good imaginations… which can lead them to build elaborate castles in the air before they’ve even built a solid foundation. 

It’s not the elaborate daydreams that will help you succeed; it’s the fundamentals. Those fundamentals are like magic; they enable you to turn dreams into reality. 

Here are the 9 foundational elements every author or artist needs to succeed in their publishing careers:

1. Start with baby steps.

Everyone starts as a beginner, just like Il Sung Na’s visionary pig. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write a multi-volume epic, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.

I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success: the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.

And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.

2. Be part of a creative community.

The Dreamer begins with a lone pig staring into the sky, but it doesn’t take long before the pig has enlisted a whole group of animals to help him gain traction with his flying project.

That’s no accident. It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.

After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor -- in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.

Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.

3. Put yourself out there.

The first few times The Dreamer’s pig attempts to build a flying machine, he does it by himself -- and always ends in a heap of twisted mechanical parts. It’s only after he starts showing his work to a few friendly observers that he starts making progress.

When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:

  • “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
  • “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
  • “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”

All of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are elaborate justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it: FEAR.

Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?

However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal.

Your biggest problem is being invisible.

You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.

4. Build your online presence.

OK, I’ll admit we never see the pig in Il Sung Na’s book build a website or open a social media account. But in the case of breaking into kids comics publishing today, you absolutely must have some sort of online presence.

As Austin Kleon says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”

That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeviantArt, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.

Here’s what you need, at a minimum:

  • A website.
    It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, that's your problem, not theirs.)
  • A “keep in touch” strategy.
    You must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
  • An “outreach” strategy.
    This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach MORE people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach ("The Tortoise and the Hare" is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.

Any of these strategies is legitimate and effective. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.

5. Understand your audience.

This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.

But in the case of creating work for children -- whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic -- you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor, or dark fantasy, or monster trucks, or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.

This is a huge difference between the adult book market and the kids market. Because, when it comes to children's books, there is no such thing as All Ages.

As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 -- or even when she is 8 or 9!

Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of a 7 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.

So when you’re writing books for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.

Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.

6. Know the market.

Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. Just like the pig who studies blueprints and equations and the latest in aeronautical engineering, you’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.

Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.

That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.

As an added bonus, once you have a meeting with an editor or publisher -- or further along in your career, once you’re appearing on panels and podcasts -- having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape will help you contribute more meaningfully to the conversation. Which, in turn, makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing, and a more sought-after panelist or podcast guest.

7. Invest in yourself.

Most children's book creators don’t have a degree in “Children's Book Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.

If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.

Here are some of the specific ways you should be investing in yourself:

Or, if you really want to, get an advanced degree! Get your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or an art school like SVA, CalArts, or SCAD, or a creative writing program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts or Simmons University Writing for Children.

8. Learn to Handle Rejection.

The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent SEVEN YEARS carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.

Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.

Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Or they simply don’t see your vision.

Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important -- you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.

Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.

In fact, you really only need to do one thing….

9. Persist.

When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.

It is PERSISTENCE.

Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.

As Dr. Seuss said,

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”

And he should know….

After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.


Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

How your mindset can sabotage your marketing

4 Ways Your Mindset Might Be Sabotaging Your Marketing

Do you ever feel like marketing your work is exhausting, overwhelming, confusing, and a giant pain in the butt?

Do you wish you could just do your thing and leave the marketing to someone else?

Do the words “marketing” and “self-promotion” simply make you feel icky?

Well, I’m afraid I gotta give you some tough love.

Almost all the creative people you admire are also good marketers. It might not seem like “marketing” (especially if they’re outside-the-box types), but trust me, every successful creative person has spent a lot of time learning how to sell themselves and their work effectively.

The key is that they’ve learned how to think about marketing in constructive, creative ways.

You could spend hours and hours and thousands of dollars learning how to leverage social media or master SEO, but if your heart isn’t in it and you’re fundamentally not as enthusiastic about social media and SEO as you are about your own creative work, stop right now.

There is no magic social media formula or secret Google code that is going to solve your marketing problems for you.

There are, however, some simple mindset shifts that will make a HUGE difference in the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

If you are trying to figure out social media or SEO or any other marketing tactics without tackling these mindset shifts first, you will just waste a lot of time and money.

Let’s take a look at four of the biggest mindset problems when it comes to promoting yourself, and how to solve them.

Mindset Problem #1: Marketing takes too much time and if I do it as much as I’m supposed to, I won’t be able to work on my creative stuff.

“I don’t have enough time” is one of the most common mindset blocks that I hear. We all feel like we don’t have enough time. We all suffer from information overload and digital overwhelm.

This mental block arises from fear.

You might wonder, what the heck does fear have to do with my lack of time?

Our brains are clever. The part of our brain that is responsible for emotion and knee-jerk responses to situations, that acts out of habit and not out of rational thought, is your limbic system. Your limbic system’s number one priority is keeping you safe.

Promoting yourself effectively requires a) learning a bunch of new skills; and b) putting yourself and your work into the public realm and inviting attention. Neither of which keeps you safe. On the contrary, they make you exposed and vulnerable.

So your limbic system kicks into high gear and floods your brain with thoughts that will keep you from moving in that dangerous direction. And guess which thought is often the first one to pop up?

“I don’t have enough time.”

Why? Because it’s usually true! You ARE busy! You do have a lot of things on your plate.

It seems like the most rational, inarguable statement in the world. But it’s actually an emotional, habitual type of thought.

You do have control over your time. You do have the ability to decide what is most important to you, and what isn’t.

If building an audience for your creative work and making more money as a creator is important to you, you must take control over your time. You must consciously decide how to allocate it, and you must consciously devote a significant portion of time to things that take you out of your comfort zone.

Mindset Problem #2: I have no idea how to find my audience.

Actually, you probably already have an audience. Who likes your work? To whom do you show your stuff? Who are your favorite customers, if you have any? Who are your strongest connections on social media?

Maybe you’ll retort, “Well, Janna, of everything you just said, that’s about 15 people!”

Great! Your audience is 15 people. That is perfectly OK.

Your existing audience should be your priority. Those 15 people are super important!

They have already raised their hands to say they’re interested. By paying close attention to them and figuring out what they want from you and what they like about your work, you are setting the stage that will allow you to grow your audience much faster in the future.

Be a detective. What do they ask you about? Why are they interested in your work?

Really good marketing starts with really good listening.

The next step is to combine what your audience is interested in, with what you love to talk about. Maybe your audience wants to be inspired by dreamy, evocative stories. You love talking about the technical details of creating your work.

So you create a plan to consistently post your best work online, and tell stories about how you created it.

The next step is old-fashioned hustle. You must go out and actively grow your audience from 15 people to 16, then 18, then 23, and so on… it doesn’t happen automatically.

Maybe you start a meetup. Or host an open studio at home. Or post a weekly tutorial on YouTube.

There are countless ways to reach out and introduce new people to your work. What’s important is that you take the initiative to decide what feels right to you, and then do it — consistently.

Mindset Problem #3: Promoting yourself is annoying and drives people away.

This is the extremely prevalent “used car salesman” fallacy of self-promotion. When people think about promoting themselves, they often envision a pushy, self-important dude yelling, “Hey guys, check out my stuff! It is AWESOME!”

But this is a false stereotype. The most effective marketing is usually invisible.

You know you’ve encountered creative, thoughtful marketing when you find out about a person or a company and something they do makes you exclaim to yourself, “Wow, the stuff they’re doing is really cool!”

They’ve connected with you on an emotional level. Maybe they’re telling an inspiring story about their work; or they’re creating something valuable that makes your life or the world a better place; or they’re just entertaining you in a really engaging way.

You need to adopt the exact same approach to your marketing as you do to your actual creative work. Start by asking yourself:

  • What am I passionate about? How can I share that?
  • What do I know that other people want to learn? How can I teach it?
  • How can I use my work to make a positive difference in people’s lives, even if they never buy anything from me?

If you promote yourself in this way, you will never drive people away. You will steadily attract people toward you.

Mindset Problem #4: I get overwhelmed by social media and can’t figure out the best place to promote myself.

That feeling of “overwhelm” happens because you don’t have a strategy and a plan. When you’re trying things willy-nilly, you feel scattered and unsure about whether your actions are effective.

These days, people tend to equate “marketing” with “social media” — but no, social media does not equal marketing!

Social media is just one marketing tool in a huge arsenal of possibilities.

There is no one-size-fits-all marketing plan. Every person and every business is unique, and the path to effective marketing starts with uncovering exactly what makes you unique.

Once you’ve figured that out, you can then decide which social media platform makes the most sense for you, and how to use it. Or you might decide to forego social media altogether and use other tactics instead.

That’s right — I believe it is possible to design an effective 21st century self-promotion plan without using any social media at all.

This isn’t necessarily what I would recommend for most people, but sometimes it’s the right choice. I mention it here because I want to emphasize that social media is just one piece of the puzzle, and not necessarily the most important piece. It all depends on you and your audience.

Conclusion

The single best way to succeed in promoting yourself is to apply the same passion, genuineness, creativity, drive, and care into your marketing as you do to your creative work.

Doing this requires that you think of marketing not as some sort of tactic that a certain breed of people do well, or that only people with a specific skill set can handle. You have to think of marketing as an integral component of your creative work itself.

Over the next few months, on this blog, I’m going to focus on how to do this, step by step. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, please let me know in the comments, does your mindset ever get in the way of you promoting your work effectively? How?


Dealing with rejection from agents and publishers

Dealing with rejection from agents and publishers

Let’s face it: if you’re a creative person, you’re going to face rejection at some point in your career. In fact, you’ll probably face a lot of rejection.

But there’s one hard fact I want you to internalize...

Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

There are many reasons why an agent or publisher might reject your manuscript or book proposal. It might be that their taste doesn’t mesh with yours. Or they already have a project that’s similar to yours. Or they think your work isn’t quite “prime-time ready” yet.

Regardless of the reason, it hurts when you get a “No, thanks” response. But I want you to pick yourself up and keep going.

Because rejection isn’t failure. Rejection is opportunity.

What do I mean by that?

Every time you face a challenge in life, or your creative work is rejected, it’s an opportunity for you to grow. Whenever you force yourself to do things or confront things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable, it’s the process of facing them and persisting that helps you mature as a person and artist.

Real Stories of Rejection

In my very first episode of Janna Co. TV, I chat with my good friend and collaborator Misako Rocks! about rejection.

Dealing with rejection from publishers and agents: Janna Co. YouTube show

We’ve been friends for about 15 years. Guess how we met? You’ll find out in the video -- it involves rejection.

I’ll also reveal the story of my very first attempt to break into children’s book publishing. It involves rejection.

We’ll talk about the current project we’re working on together. It involves rejection.

Through all these stories, we’ll discuss how we’ve faced rejection in the past and how we’ve learned to deal with it now. We’ll talk about “saying good-bye to your pride” and embracing the cards you’re dealt.

And finally, we’ll talk about how often you feel excited and scared of rejection at the same time. This is a normal human response, and it’s a good sign. It means you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. You’re pushing yourself toward the things that really matter to you.

After you’ve watched the video, I’d love to hear from you.

How do you handle rejection? Has rejection ever helped you in an unexpected way? Is a fear of rejection keeping you stuck?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

The more we share our stories of rejection, the more we help each other. The world needs us to keep pushing forward, no matter how many roadblocks fall onto our path.


how to turn mistakes into gold

How to Turn Mistakes and Failure into Gold

Have you ever heard the tale of Rumpelstiltzkin, how he helped a poor miller’s daughter spin straw into gold and eventually marry and bear the child of the king?

Did you know that all of us have straw heaped around us that we can spin into our own gold?

Let me tell you a story….

The Tale of Janna’s Difficult Week

Once upon a time, there lived a wife and mother who worked very hard at three jobs. She took a vacation at the beginning of July, and when she returned home the following week, she decided to work extra hard to make up for the time she had spent relaxing.

On Monday and Tuesday, she felt like a super-hero. She wrote documents. Sent emails. Reviewed spreadsheets. Had phone calls. Updated websites. Processed images. Posted on social media.

She went to bed on Tuesday night, but at the stroke of midnight, a hobgoblin woke her up, sent her brain into overdrive, and prevented her from falling asleep again.

On Wednesday, the poor woman was very, very tired, but she was an over-achiever, so she pushed herself through the day and completed her “To Do” list. On Thursday she did the same.

On Friday, the woman was exhausted. She felt like she was shaking (but maybe it was the cup of iced tea that she drank). But still, she completed her work and baked cupcakes with her children in the evening.

The next day was Saturday, the day of rest. But this woman couldn’t resist taking a peek at her email, and in the course of scrolling through her messages, she realized that she had made a mistake on Monday, put a document in the wrong place, and accidentally missed a deadline.

Now the poor woman started to shed piteous tears.

“Woe is me!” she thought. “This is the second time I’ve made that mistake! I’m a failure!”

She cried and cried, and then she dried her tears, took a deep sigh, and started folding laundry.

While she was folding laundry, the hobgoblin appeared again, and whispered in her ear, “You should listen to a podcast about failure.”

“Hmmm…” she thought. “Good idea!”

So she listened to a podcast about failure. The host was a fairy godmother named Brooke Castillo. As the magical fairy godmother talked, the woman started to calm down.

In fact, she became very calm… and then happy!

That’s because the fairy godmother gave the woman a magical recipe for spinning mistakes into gold.

As soon as she was done folding laundry, the woman jumped up, used the magical recipe, and turned her mistake into gold.

“It works!” she exclaimed.

The Magical Recipe for Spinning Mistakes Into Gold

Here’s what the woman heard the fairy godmother say:

“When something happens that doesn’t meet our expectations, we get to decide what that means…. We can decide to make it mean something positive.”

When you make a mistake, the fairy godmother explained, say to yourself:

“I’m going to have my own back. I’m going to use that failure as an opportunity to learn and get better.”

And then the fairy godmother mentioned an idea she’d gotten from an impish type named Ramit Sethi.

Ramit, she said, has a Failure Log, where he strives to include at least five failures a month.

Why?

Because there is no faster way to improve than to:

  1. try new things
  2. make mistakes
  3. examine those mistakes
  4. decide how to do things differently
  5. do the whole process over and over again

The problem is that many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over again because we don’t force ourselves to stop, write them down, and reflect on them.

That’s the genius of Ramit Sethi’s Failure Log.

Not only is it a simple way to remind yourself to reflect constructively on your failures; it is also a way to make you excited to fail — because then you meet your quota of 5 failures a month!

Magic.


A Tale of Two Artists: Talent versus Confidence

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.


How to Override Your Self-Doubt

Override your self-doubt: 3 simple ways to vanquish your fear and accomplish your biggest goals

A librarian friend of mine recently told me about a conversation she’d had with a particularly prolific writer-artist. When she asked him how was able to publish so many books, he replied, “Constantly overriding my self-doubt.”

His choice of words really struck me.

It’s more common for people to say, “I have to overcome my self-doubt.” “Override” is a bit different.

The dictionary definition of “override,” after all, is:

“To interrupt the action of an automatic device, typically to take manual control.”

This is a perfect metaphor for what happens in our brains, particularly when it comes to emotions like self-doubt and its close cousin, fear.

We tend to think that we are in control of our actions and behavior, but when it comes to strong emotional states, the most primitive part of our brain — the most “automatic” part — controls us.

This primitive part of the brain is called the amygdala, and it governs our programmed response to fear. Emotions tied to fear, like shame, anxiety, sadness, and self-doubt, trigger a cascade of physical effects in our body: a heightened heart rate, shallow breathing, pain in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, etc.

When we think of this “automatic fear effect,” we tend to envision them in their most dramatic form, like when we are afraid of public speaking and are forced to address a big crowd.

But sometimes the fear response is much more subtle, and very easy to misinterpret.

For instance, if you’re trying to take on a big project — let’s say, write a book, learn a new skill, or start a business — you may start off in a burst of enthusiasm and then find yourself inexplicably feeling uncomfortable. You realize you have a vague physical sensation that something isn’t right.

And your default, even unconscious assumption might be, “Hmm…. Something is wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t try this after all.”

Self-doubt has reared its head. And if you haven’t learned how to “take manual control,” you will succumb to it.

What that artist was saying, when he explained to my friend that the secret to his success is “constantly overriding self-doubt,” is that he has mastered certain mental habits that allow him to push past those feelings of unease.

And that’s the critical point to emphasize: it’s not that successful creative people don’t have self-doubt, it’s that they’ve learned how to deal with it. As Maya Angelou said:

“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.”

Take Manual Control

So what are the mechanisms by which you can “seize manual control” over those deep-seated, unconscious emotional forces in your brain and “override your self-doubt”?

The truth is that there are only three basic principles you need to master, and they are very easy to understand. The first is ACTION, the second is ATTITUDE, and the third is ACCOUNTABILITY.

Action

The Buddha observed, “What you think, you become.”

If you think you’re not the kind of person who is capable of writing a book, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of writing a book. If you think you’re not the kind of person who could successfully start a small business and quit her job, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of successfully starting a small business and quitting her job.

“OK,” you might argue, “but what if I’d like to write a book but I’ve never done it before? And I have no proof that I can do it? I can try to do it, but there’s no way I can know in advance whether or not I’ll succeed.”

You are correct that the future is entirely unpredictable. This means that you have no proof that you can write a book — but on the other hand, you also have no proof that you can’t write a book.

Because you have no way of knowing what will happen in the future, the only thing you can control is the present.

You have total control of the present moment.

When you are trying to tackle a challenging project and you start losing your confidence, ask yourself, what’s the smallest, simplest, concrete action I can take right now?

The fear or discomfort is not going to go away completely, but you’ll be amazed by how much it dissipates when you shift your focus from worrying to doing. And miraculously, big things happen because of the accumulation of many tiny steps.

STEP NUMBER ONE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO ALWAYS DEFAULT TO ACTION.

When you find yourself feeling anxious or uncomfortable, look at your plan, decide what task makes sense to do now, and do it.

Attitude

It is human nature to compare ourselves to others, and all too often, to think that others have it easier than we do. They are more talented, luckier, more well-adjusted, smarter… etcetera, etcetera.

Correspondingly, when you are embarking on a big new project, it’s natural to look at other people who’ve accomplished similar things to try to figure out how they did it. But all too often, we skip straight to the finished product and assume that somehow, they didn’t struggle as much as we do.

The truth is that everybody struggles. But there are big differences in people’s attitude toward the struggle.

Certain mindsets are especially toxic toward creative endeavor:

  • “If only I had the resources/parents/background that Person X has, this would be so much easier.”
  • “If I were really meant to succeed at this, it wouldn’t be so hard.”
  • “I don’t want to look stupid.”

On the other hand, here’s the attitude that will enable you to push through any obstacle, no matter how massive or impenetrable it might be:

  • “It’s going to be hard. I’m going to feel afraid.”

By acknowledging in advance that trying new things, creating new work, learning, and pushing yourself into uncharted territory is uncomfortable, you will have a much higher likelihood of succeeding than if you try to suppress or ignore your fear.

In order to keep evolving and accomplish your goals, there’s no circumventing it — you must move toward your fear.

When you acknowledge your self-doubt, you are using your rational brain to override your emotional brain. Your emotional brain is freaking out, but your rational brain is talking it through, saying, in essence, “Hey there! I know you’re scared! Guess what — all these uncomfortable feelings don’t mean you’re doing something wrong, they just mean you’re a normal human being who’s afraid of trying something new. But I really want to try this new thing, so I’m going to help us move forward despite these scary feelings.”

Start by simply noticing your emotions. When you feel uncomfortable, say to yourself, “Oh, I feel uncomfortable.”

When you feel self-doubt, say to yourself, “I’m feeling self-doubt.”

When you feel afraid, say to yourself, “I feel afraid.”

Then, take a “timeout.” Take several long, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing.

Finally, go back to Principle One, decide what action you are going to take, and as you do it, consciously acknowledge that it might feel scary and uncomfortable, and that’s OK.

Rinse and repeat.

You’ll notice two results: one, you’ll start making progress on your goal; and two, your fearful feelings will slowly start to subside.

STEP NUMBER TWO, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO CONSCIOUSLY ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL FEEL FEAR, AND COMMIT TO MOVING FORWARD WITH IT.

Accountability

Everything I’ve described above may make sense to you on an intellectual level, but intellectual understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior.

Peer pressure and social norms, on the other hand, absolutely lead to changes in behavior.

If you want to put yourself in a position where external forces are conspiring to help you succeed, do whatever you can to find a community of kindred spirits.

You can’t conquer your fear in a vacuum. Trying to do things on your own almost guarantees that you’ll hit a brick wall.

Sharing your goals and fears with supportive human beings, on the other hand, offers a trifold return:

  • first, you get the encouragement of people cheering you on;
  • second, you get the incentive of having publicly stated your intention and now being held accountable for making progress;
  • third, human beings are hard-wired as social animals, and will calibrate their behavior based on the community surrounding them.

So if you want to evolve and challenge yourself in specific ways, you must surround yourself with other people who are doing similar things.

If you don’t know any people who are aiming toward the same types of goals as you, you must go out and look for them. Maybe you’re trying to start a business and you don’t know any business owners, or you want to break into children’s books but you don’t know any people in publishing.

In this day and age, if you put in some effort, you can absolutely find supporters, confidantes, and mentors no matter where you live or who you know.

Here are a few ways to build your network: Take a class. Join an industry association. Start a meet-up. Hire a coach. Attend events. Create a local or online group.

It doesn’t matter whether your network is one person or 100 people. What matters is that you commit to sharing your dream and being completely honest with at least one other human being (hopefully a few more than that), and that you ask for help and give them regular updates on your progress.

Of course, it takes time to build the relationships that will sustain your creative work over the long haul. You can’t expect to join a group or find a mentor and immediately get unconditional support and thoughtful personal insight. You must invest in these relationships and be willing to expose your innermost struggles.

If you do find and nurture a community of friends and mentors in the area where you want to grow, the time and energy you invest will pay off exponentially.

STEP NUMBER THREE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO FIND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT AND UNDERSTAND YOUR CREATIVE WORK, AND SHARE YOUR JOURNEY WITH THEM.

Do you have a big goal, but feelings of self-doubt?

How you are overriding your own self-doubt? Or are you having trouble doing it?

Let me know in the comments.