All writers need role models

A common, tired parlance in the world of personal development is to never compare yourself to others. The intent is honorable; the advice is terrible.

There is a self-aggrandizing belief that you never need “suffer” from viewing your work next to someone else’s. This thinking stems from the fact that many people are unable to recognize what makes for a healthy, constructive comparison and what makes for a toxic one.

A healthy comparison is looking at great work and analyzing its parts. This stuff doesn’t appear out of thin air. Unless you are as delusional as Salieri in Amadeus, you know that even the wunderkinds of the world are not taking dictation from God. What ends up on the canvas is the mixed results of unique talent, experience, deliberate effort, and hard work. Study it.

You cannot deliver excellence until you’ve felt its presence. Or, as Stephen King would say:

You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Encountering brilliance should be a reminder of what is still possible. If you care only for ego, this is disheartening. If you care about the work, this is invigorating—how lucky you should be to have so much left to hone and experience.

Yes, there is a flip-side. Keeping up with the Jones’s becomes a poisonous, self-destructive form of comparison when you constantly benchmark results. With writing, this means becoming disheartened because someone else’s article has more “tweets” than yours, or that their traffic numbers are way up, or that their book is a bestseller.

The only comparison that you can learn and benefit from is the craft. Results are too variable—luck, and the chaotic nature of the universe are nothing you can control. Sharpening your creative edge, however, is under your ownership. The best way to improve is to study those who are at a level you would like to someday reach.

Many writers become judge, jury, and executioner for their work because they see “the greats” and demotivate themselves by dwelling on how they will never mirror such virtuosity.

They have it all wrong: comparing your work isn’t about being the best, it’s about being the best you are able. Averting your gaze from others may save your ego, but at the cost of never learning anything from them. Setting standards that you must replicate is impossible—creative work is fluid and does different things for different people. The goal of comparison is merely to raise the bar that keeps you moving forward.

Have a role model. Study the best. Someday, if you’re lucky, a creative idol may become a creative rival.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.