Many Americans read the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” at a young age. It’s considered an American classic and is often required reading in high school. Harper Lee published the book at age 34 and never published another book until right before she died at age 89 in 2015.
Over the years, when asked why she wouldn’t write another novel after seeing such crazy success, she said:
“I'll put it this way. When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?”
That comment hits me hard. I haven’t seen the type of success that Harper Lee did, but the feeling of competing with myself has always been there. It’s paralyzing if you let it be, a fear that gets inside your head and suffocates creativity. It can make you feel like a fraud, because you’re not sure you can live up to your own and others’ expectations. But I’m thankful for this feeling because I’ve made it work for me, instead of against me. In fact, I think I would have failed long ago without it. I’m a competitive person and probably my own worst (or best?) enemy.
"Your past contributes to who you are, but it’s still the past. You have to keep evolving."
It’s commonly said in sports that you’re only as good as your last game. While that’s an incredible amount of pressure to put on yourself, I mostly believe this is true. Your past success contributes to who you are, but it’s still the past. You have to keep evolving and or you are wasting your time.
I’ve heard from many artists who live by this rule. NYC fashion illustrator Katie Rodgers is one of them. Katie is known for her whimsical illustrations for brands like Disney, Coach and Swarovski, so she often gets requests to do similar work for other clients.
That kind of work may be easy, no pressure. But Katie knows it can become a dangerous pattern.
"I will never turn down something because I’m nervous."
That’s not the way Katie chooses to operate. Instead she makes it a point to accept projects that force her to grow. The challenging, intimidating ones that she’s not even sure she can do.
“I will never turndown something because I’m nervous,” she says.
Of course it’s a balance and sometimes you just need to take on projects to make ends meet. Even Katie admits it’s hard to evolve on someone else’s dime. So sometimes, the only place you can evolve is through your personal work.
“That’s the only time when you can do anything you want,” Malika says. “And if your personal work is strong enough, it becomes part of your portfolio, and then clients want that. So you always have to reinvent yourself, and it can be quite exhausting.”
It can be exhausting, but the rewards are great. Nobody wants to look back on their career after five or ten years and say, “What am I doing?” Easy is nice and safe for a time, and there’s no guilt in doing quick and easy work because you’ve grown your skills and learned to be efficient. But easy doesn’t make you better.
"I’d rather try and fail than not try at all."
Like Katie and Malika, I choose to do work that challenges me. It’s intimidating to feel like you have to top yourself, because what if it’s not good enough? What if people hate it? What if I hate it? But the alternative is scarier. I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. I’d rather create something bad than not create at all.
When Harper Lee finally published another book two years ago, it was controversial for a few reasons. Many people thought she was pressured by her lawyer to publish an old manuscript she didn’t want to publish. If that’s true, it’s a tragedy. But equally tragic is to spend 55 years not creating out of fear. The “pinnacle,” as Harper Lee put it, is not just about recognition from others. It’s about growing and living and being the best you can be.