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Confidence: the secret ingredient

Creativity often gets obscured by insecurity. How are the two linked? And what can we do to cultivate a confident way of working?

Illustration: Julia Farkas

If you were to name the most critical components in a creative’s toolbox, which would be at the top? Knowledge, experience, and industry connections are a few that immediately come to mind. What unites these specific components is they are all incredibly achievable—you can gain each and every one of them through hard work throughout your career.

There’s a second type of component, which is much trickier. We’re talking about personality traits that are just as important (if not more so) to your success as a designer. These are your own characteristics, and therefore considered harder to attain. Qualities such as patience, curiosity, endurance, and flexibility, to name a few. And, of course, the one we’ll be addressing here today—confidence.

As designers we’re constantly putting ourselves out there—exposed to criticism on a daily basis. Confidence is more than a ‘nice to have’ characteristic, it’s pretty crucial for building resilience and actually enjoying our career in the day-to-day.

So, what happens when that crucial confidence is missing from your life at the moment? Maybe you’re just starting out on your journey and feeling self-doubt; maybe you’ve had a disappointing experience recently that left you feeling self-critical. Whatever the reason, moments of insecurity are inevitable. In dealing with those, it always helps to draw from the experience of others. We sat down and chatted with two Wix Playground Academy graduates: visual designer Audrea Wah, SAIC graduate and creative technologist at Universal Music; and Sophie Westfall, NYC based digital designer at Scout Lab. Both shared their thoughts, stories and tips on building confidence as a creative (so that you can too!).

Confidence as an inherent quality

We are often led to believe we are either confident or insecure, wrongfully placing ourselves on one edge of the spectrum and ignoring its vast range. But what if that’s just an unfortunate misconception we carry with us for no reason? Audrea says: “I never thought of myself as a confident person, until I noticed people started calling me that. I used to think of myself as insecure, shy even. Then when people said otherwise—it made me reconsider my assumptions about myself. I attribute this shift to a friend of mine, who is extremely confident and has such an uplifting personality. Whenever I spend time with her, I am immediately immersed in that state of being and it helps me experience myself in the same way. I realized that this is part of who I am, not just when I’m with her. Once I dipped my toes in that confidence pool, it was more available to me. As you get acquainted with confidence as an emotion and way of being, it makes it easier to feel that by yourself.”

Friend, not foe

One of the most common causes for insecurity is comparison. When we’re surrounded by peers and colleagues practicing the same craft as us, it’s easy for toxic competition to seep in.

Audrea, who prior to her creative career went to a community college to pursue her passion for Sex Education and Reproductive Health, says: “During my years in community college, the field I was in wasn’t one which lends itself too easly to competitiveness. Moving to art school was a big shock. I found myself surrounded by people doing the same thing as me, sharing the same passion. And although that was very comforting on the one hand, it also felt intimidating, as there was suddenly a lot of room for comparison. At first, it was hard to make friends, people mostly kept to themselves, probably because of that insecurity we all felt towards one another. But once classes started, things quickly changed, and we all saw that our mutual interests are actually beneficial. We realized we’re all going through the same thing. Being under constant criticism is very stressful, but sharing it with others who know exactly how it feels is sort of an antidote to the stress.” Sophie adds of her experience: “While working on a project for a client, I was going through a very stressful process, which included a lot of back and forth with endless feedback and iterations. The fact that there were so many comments on the project really got to me, and made me question myself, feeling insecure as a designer.

What eventually helped was my team—having them by my side, reassuring me that it’s not about my abilities or design quality, rather part of the creative process. It helped tremendously in reducing the stress and rebuilding my confidence levels.”

You are not your work

Feeling supported in school and at work is crucial for our wellbeing and for a healthy relationship with the work we create. But what about life beyond working hours—the world we share with our families and circles of friends that are outside of our creative sphere? What part do they play in our confidence?

Audrea: “At times, when my insecurity was at its highest, I questioned whether I do good work or whether I should even be a designer at all. In those very dark moments, what I really needed was an external support system, people who aren't necessarily designers. For me, those were my friends back home. They provided an outsider perspective, and were able to show me what they see in me, and reassure me about myself. The most valuable thing they reminded me of was to untie my own value from school, reminding me that school is not life—it’s part of it, but not the whole picture.

Being under constant criticism—even when positive and constructive—can get really harsh, therefore really hard not to internalize. School was really helpful in staying afloat and putting things into perspective, but my friends were the most helpful in separating my self-worth from the work I do and the feedback I receive for it.”

Coming out on the other side

Experiencing dips in your confidence levels are a given when you’re working in creative fields. Trying to avoid them altogether is impossible, so a better work plan should be learning how to handle them when they do arise.

Audrea says: “I had a very humbling experience during a portfolio review. I was very proud of one specific project, feeling it was reflective of both my typographic skills as well as my artistic and conceptual abilities. But as one of the reviewers started questioning me about it, I realized he didn’t think it was strong at all. I went from being completely confident in that work, to completely questioning myself. I felt like a balloon being popped, and refilling it took a while. My confidence took a hit. As I continued working on my portfolio, I realized this experience carried a valuable lesson—once you put yourself out there, you’re gonna be in a vulnerable position, and that’s actually a good thing. I understood that those experiences should not be pushed aside, but on the contrary—I should own them, learn from them and embrace them. “

The silver lining

What about the good side of feeling insecurity, and we know you’re wondering, is there even such a thing? What can we learn from it?

Sophie says: “I think it creates stress but it can also create positive change. It makes you reevaluate and work harder to be a better person and a better designer. For me personally, I find that I work better when I'm pushing myself, and sometimes a place of insecurity can make you grow and create purpose for yourself.”

Audrea adds: “I think it's a completely different feeling of accomplishment when you’ve also experienced failure. It makes your journey richer and more interesting, and this is what life's about.”

Building your own confidence

Lastly, the most important skill to master is owning your confidence.

Sophie: “After graduating I felt empty. I was used to receiving feedback, and now, that part of my creative identity was gone. That was scary—not having an external validation of my work. But it actually turned out to be something positive that I grew from. I had to learn how to build my own internal confidence, and that became in itself something I was proud of.

One of the things that helped me was working in multiple sectors. Getting an understanding of different industries made me realize that the more I do, the more confident I’ll become. I noticed that confidence grows naturally as I gain experience and understanding of processes, and that was very empowering.”

Audrea adds: “Whenever I feel stressed and encumbered in what feels like unrealistic expectations, I try to reframe the situation with a few thought experiments. One of them is reminding myself that this moment that I’m in, this life that I’m living right now—are someone else’s dream. It allows me to step back and look at the situation from another person’s perspective. That immediately makes me feel grateful no matter how hard that moment feels.

Another one is remembering that any work you do and put out there has the potential to help someone or even just make them smile. And that in itself is worth it and makes me want to keep going. And the last, which might seem a bit morbid but I like it nonetheless, is thinking about death, and by that trying to understand my future self. Asking myself, what am I going to regret and what am I going to be grateful for, will this moment really matter in the big picture? Just trying to zoom out and look at things differently, I find that always helps in pulling myself out and instantly feel better about myself.”


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