How do I learn to embrace my own mediocrity?
January 9, 2009 10:22 AM   Subscribe

How do you feel good about yourself working in a career you're pretty mediocre at, but stuck in?

I started hating my graphic design degree about midway through it, but stuck with it because I couldn't think of an alternative to do instead, and I was halfway there so figured might as well finish it. Now I'm a graphic designer, some 5 years down the track, and I know I'm not much good. Sometimes I'll fluke something that looks alright; mostly I'm just flailing around with my fingers crossed. I just don't care about aesthetic design, I suppose, is the problem. Like anyone I appreciate nice-looking design when I see it, but I suppose I lack the passion or interest to really care to analyse it and work out how they've done it, and experiment with the things I see in my own work, and so on. I make what turns out to be bad design decisions without realising it. I thought the font Mistral was quite nice until I heard other designers laughing at it and realised it was regarded as roughly equivalent to Comic Sans. I just don't have that designer's eye. I've read books on design and tried to acquire it. It doesn't stick. I don't see stuff in my head before trying to put it on screen. There's no "vision" to bring to life. Aesthetic design just doesn't seem to be something I was built to do.

This would, I suppose, be okay if I wasn't someone who, generally, prided themselves on doing good work. My boss would appear to like mediocrity, and so I pull a wage and, case in point, he's even said in the past he likes my work. Inside ME, though, it just makes me feel really BAD all the time to be not doing something GOOD. I want to walk away at the end of a day's work feeling like I've accomplished something; mostly I walk away going, "Holy hell, another sucky one in which I got nowhere; I hope I get lucky and something okay comes out tomorrow."

I know there are people out there who aren't sh*t hot at what they do but still do it. I've come across online portfolios by people who are worse designers than I am, and they still seem pretty happy to be putting themselves out on the market and are happy when they get a job, rather than feeling like they're letting their clients down by being so sucky, and like they're not being Productive and Good just inside themselves. How do they do it? For financial (student debt) reasons I'm going to be stuck in what I'm doing for a good while yet. I need to work out how to deal with this before my self esteem falls too deep down the toilet and gets stuck irretrievably in the S-bend.

Posting anonymously 'cause, duh, I want a professional future. ;-) For that reason, thanks in advance for any help you can offer.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to keep in mind that all perfectionists are mediocre in their own eyes.

You would not believe the crap I've passed off that has been widely praised by my peers.
posted by tkolar at 10:31 AM on January 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think it probably comes down to determining whether you're feeling like you're mediocre and doing the best you can, or mediocre because you choose to be (whether through not applying yourself, whatever).

If this is as good as you can be at it, then just deal with it. Find another outlet for your creativity and passion. If you're pissed at yourself for being pants because you know you could be better, then get better. Commit to it fully, or don't worry about it. 0% or 100%.
posted by jasondbarr at 10:38 AM on January 9, 2009

Hell, I'm almost 30 years into a graphic design career and I can count on one hand the number of pieces I've worked on that I actually like.

The big, dirty secret of the GD business is that most of us rarely, if ever, get to work on those big, amazing, career-defining über-creative jobs that we read about all the time. The ones the "big guys" get. Most of the time, you will be bashing-out dull pieces for dull clients.

For every one name-brand designer doing bleeding-edge work worldwide, there are thousands of anonymous talents meeting the many needs of local small businesses. That's the reality of the business.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

I think the real issue here is if you cant get passionate about x, then why do you think you'll be passionate about y. Lets say tomorrow you quit, get a CS degree, and then start a new programming job. In a couple years you'll find your talent plateus and other coders think its amusing that you used some archaic function, inefficient loop, or still like to prototype in VB.

Well, now youre back at square one. The real question is why do you think you cant improve your skill. Why cant you communicate more with other designers and use their opinions to help you craft better work? It seems like youve written yourself off, which is pretty sad, everyone can improve at what they are doing. Throwing your hands up in the air and saying 'I dont have talent and Im unhappy' is just the wrong attitude.

Are you even trying to improve yourself? Are you part of any design community? Do you read any design magazines or web sites?

On top of this, do you really think that youre that terrible? That you just lucked out with a boss who just happens to have your own horrible eye for design? It may be that youre good enough at your work, but envy others and exaggerate even the slightest criticism (using mistral).
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2009

Are there perhaps two possible issues here?

1. You think your work is mediocre and therefore don't like doing the work.

2. You don't like doing the work and therefore don't excel.

You say: I just don't care about aesthetic design...

which makes me think you don't like this line of work- and still wouldn't even if you thought you were good at it. Is this the case?
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 10:45 AM on January 9, 2009

Well part of the problem is that if you think you're ever going to be really satisfied by your career, you're always going to be disappointed. Yeah, some jobs suck more than others, and yeah, for every person there are careers that are better fits than others. But even if you're at some mythical optimum point where you love what you do... that isn't enough. And trying to make it enough just makes you more miserable. If all of your self-worth is based on your career, you're never going to be happy.

You need more to your life than work. Get a girlfriend. Volunteer. Hell, get a pet. As a religious person myself, I believe that none of these things will ultimately work either, but even the most unreligious people on here will probably agree with me that making a life for yourself outside of work is better than not.
posted by valkyryn at 11:01 AM on January 9, 2009

How do you feel about your life outside your work? Do you feel motivated, energetic, and purposeful in your personal and spiritual life, doing your hobbies, hanging out with friends, etc.?

If you feel like this in other areas of your life, please consider that you may be suffering from depression. If you are depressed, then the most cushy and well-paid of jobs will seem like a day at the salt mines. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and medications in various combinations help so many people. Please seek help if you think you are depressed because nothing else is going to work for you if that's the case - the depression will overshadow absolutely EVERYTHING and make it taste of ashes.

If you're pretty happy otherwise, but your career is the big thorn in your foot, you may want to look at what is making you unhappy. Is it the work environment? What you are doing? Your boss or coworkers? Every job will have rough patches, and there is no such thing as the perfect 100% fulfilling job or career any more than there is the perfect love relationship. But many things like a punishing commute, toxic boss, no new challenges at work, etc. are things that can be addressed and worked on.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:10 AM on January 9, 2009

I would start by reconsidering the false assumption that I'm "stuck."
posted by PFL at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may not like hearing this, but you’re 5 years out from getting your degree. That’s hardly enough time to really get a good grip on some professions if you’ve not had a mentor, or had poor mentoring. You may be mediocre, or not. How can you know without good/valuable feedback? Who’s yardstick are you using?

You may need to find another field, but that may just be a way of avoiding getting to know why you feel you are not meeting your own expectations.

You may be a perfectionist who will never like your own work.

You may be unable to ever give yourself any credit for doing a good job.

You may be a middle-of-the-road designer who needs some good feedback to become better. This is something that all designers must do, even the naturally talented ones.

You may be a middle-of-the-road designer who will always be that way who needs to gain acceptance/pride in the things you do.

If you are just “mediocre” and willing to find a way to live with it, then pat yourself on the back for what you’re doing right. Do you show up on time and not goof off all day? Do you meet deadlines? Does your employer find your work worthwhile?

Maybe, after 5 years out of school, you’re bored because you spend so much time in your own head. Does your creativity need stimulation? Seek out learning a new thing – it’s best if it’s not in the graphic design field. Do you have good relationships with friends/family/the community? If not, try and become involved more in some of those areas. Work on becoming proud of who you are in more than one area of life. Your workplace and job will change over the years and it’s not as important in the long run as being a person who you want to be.
posted by mightshould at 12:03 PM on January 9, 2009

Everything Thorzdad said.
And, (this works for me, ymmv) seek constant dialogue with your peers. I learned more and had more inspiration in a few years of participating in a small, closed mailing list populated with designer friends than in 12 years of doing this job.
posted by _dario at 12:14 PM on January 9, 2009

Here's my opinion:

You can *always* change. Don't ever feel trapped where you are. You may not have every option open to you, but you can always work your way into something better.

The key here is to determine what it is that you actually *like*. There's no point in putting in the effort to make a change if you don't know what you're changing to.

Once you figure that out, you'll be able to start logically putting together the elements of a path from here to there. It might take some time, a relocation, some level of adjustment, and a plant to survive the transition. A lot of notable people worked crap jobs while waiting for their ships to come in. (For example, a lot of actors wait tables while waiting for parts.)

It takes patience and determination to redefine oneself. But, anyone can do it.

It will be scary to start the path out, and uncomfortable to walk it. But, you'll feel better when you come out of the other side.
posted by Citrus at 12:22 PM on January 9, 2009

Reading your question, I wonder how much of what you feel is that you genuinely don't like the career field (which is valid! go find something really gets you going!) and how much is that you don't like doing mediocre work. I certainly struggle with the latter. A lot.

In fact, I was all gung-ho about graphic design the last couple of years, but realized that 1) I am also quite mediocre, not very artistic, etc. and 2) that the effort I would need to put into it to get to a professional level was going to be too much work relative to the $$ I could expect to bring in. I decided to strike out on a different path, trying to draw upon other strengths that I've already begun to develop, to hopefully shorten the time it will take to be 'living/working up to my potential'. (I don't have a background in art or design at all.)

But you've already put in a lot of time/energy into your training, not to mention 5 years experience. Like I said, maybe it truly is that this is just not the field for you and you'd much more enjoy something else. But if you have high expectations of yourself and get frustrated with your 'mediocre' work, perhaps you can work through that and find your work enjoyable. Perfectionism can be a great motivator, but it is also a bit debilitating since things are almost never good enough. You might encounter that problem no matter what field you're in.

Check out this video by Ira Glass (of This American Life) on the subject of when the work you produce doesn't meet your own expectations.
posted by inatizzy at 12:33 PM on January 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm in a very similar situation. Not very interested in what I'm doing (though it took a lot of work to get here) and subsequently have a hard time focusing and putting out the quality of work that I really want to.

I think the best advice on here is: you're not really stuck. You need to identify something that is more satisfying. Or at the very least spend your downtime on something that satisfies you enough that 40+hours that you're working do not seem as important.
posted by nameless.k at 1:17 PM on January 9, 2009

For a significant portion of my life I thought that I did absolutely mediocre work, despite constantly getting raved over like I was some sort of damn genius.

Turns out that I set the bar really high for myself, and that what I considered mediocre and barely worth a second glance... was significantly better than anything my peers were creating/inventing/etc.

If you get paid. If you get repeat clients and acknowledgment... you may not be as bad a designer as you think.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 1:39 PM on January 9, 2009

You basically have three options. Try and reengage with your career, start looking for a new career, wait until you are forced to start looking for a new career.

If you really dislike your career and you've kept at it for 5 years, then you wouldn't be out of line to start actively working to change careers. Most people shift focus, often dramatically, at least once or twice in their working lives. There is no point in suffering for the sake of suffering.

If you decide to wait it out, you'll probably find that at some point, you have no choice but to find a new career won't have a choice. At some point, there will be a reshuffling at your employer and the whole design staff will be let go, or you'll get cut because your attitude and your output has been on a long decline. You'll find yourself on the job market with a lack of any sort of passion, mediocre references and maybe a lot of competition.

If changing your career is the route you are going to take, better to do it sooner rather than later. Do it before your psyche takes any more of beating. Do it before your boss's opinion of you drops. You could try taking a babystep by moving from producing graphic design to either buying or selling it. You get away from the soul-crushing feeling that you aren't creative enough, but hopefully can take advantage of your sense of what good design is, and how long it should take/cost for various projects. In the process, you'll pick up some other skills (negotiation, selling, project management, etc) which could help you take another step, and, if you are on the buying side, you'll be learning about a new business that is not graphic design, which might itself open another career path, if after a year or two, it doesn't, look for a job at another, different kind of company and see if anything about it interests you.

Your other option is to work on reengaging with graphic design. The first thing is to consider that your self-assessment of your abilities and your output is severely skewed. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. Even if your assessment is accurate, the conclusions they've lead you to could be flawed. Talent matters, but applying oneself matters more, and given that you became disillusioned half way through your education, I doubt you've been applying yourself.

Realize too that if you do change careers, you have no guarantee that you won't end up running into the same disillusionment and resulting mediocrity. On the one hand, that argues for sticking with doing what you are doing now and finding ways to get into it again. On the other hand, it might be easier to make a fresh start and do something without all the baggage that graphic design has accumulated for you. Just understand that a fresh start doesn't mean that you won't end up being confronted by the same types of frustrations.

Good luck!
posted by Good Brain at 5:20 PM on January 9, 2009

See impostor syndrome
posted by lalochezia at 8:52 PM on January 9, 2009

By the way, Mistral is a perfectly good typeface; designers just dislike it because it has been overused to the point of cliche. There is nothing wrong with your eye if you find it pleasing. It does not deserve to be compared to the horror that is Comic Sans.
posted by dfan at 8:58 AM on January 12, 2009

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