The concept of self-worth is a slippery one, and one ripe for undulations over years, days, and even hours. This is especially true when we frame self-worth purely in the context of creativity: A single project might begin by bolstering it, then start to shred it, build it up again, and tear through it with something as simple as a mean tweet or scathing crit. And while the notion of self-worth is a wholly individual one, certain conditions around it are shared by most people working in a creative field: rejection, moments of imposter syndrome, unpredictable client responses, and those stifling perfectionist standards.
Beth Pickens works as a creative consultant, and starts all client relationships by trying to understand how their individual personal histories and beliefs around labor, class, and family affect their practice. Much of her work deals with helping clients understand the monetary value of what they do. “Self-worth as a human concept intersects with the job market for creatives in a lot of ways,” says Pickens. “Something a lot of my clients as women, queer people, and people of color have in common is that they aren’t generally socialized by their family or culture to understand the world of money. People who don’t work in the creative industries often devalue what they do, or see it as a luxury, and it’s hard not to absorb that cultural messaging.” Self-worth that relates to your work as much as your being, then, is utterly unique: A commission or accolade will mean something quite different from one person to the next.
We wanted to explore these individual and universal experiences of self-worth and self-doubt through the lenses of four design practitioners at different stages in their careers, along with Pickens’ own insights. We asked them about the projects that changed everything or nothing, the role education plays in evaluating self-worth, about their highs and lows, and about how all these things impact their creative output.
Beth Pickens: career consultant for female, LGBTQ+, and POC creatives.
Noah Beckwith: graduated in graphic design from Rhode Island School of Design in 2018. Works as a designer for Nike in Portland.
Qieer Wang: graduated in illustration from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2016. Works as a freelance illustrator and animator in New York.
Tea Uglow: creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. Has worked at Google since 2006. Graduated from her BFA at Oxford University in 1997.
Lance Wyman: graduated from the Pratt Institute in industrial design in 1960. Created Mexico ’68 Olympics logotype. Still working at 81.
What does the idea of “self-worth” mean to you?
Lance Wyman: Self-worth is a barometer for the confidence and energy I bring to solving a design problem. I am a better designer when I don’t get in my own way.
Tea Uglow: It’s about whether you believe in your own ideas. At a certain level, we’re commercial artists—our worth is financial, which is valuable and measurable, but that’s not usually a strong motivator for creative individuals: It doesn’t matter how much you’re getting paid, it matters that you believe it when people tell you your work is good. To me, that’s what self-worth is, but there’s a very important distinction between self-worth as a human—you’re a good person and do good stuff—and as a creative.
Noah Beckwith: I think it’s always changing, and every framework we set up to feel self-worth, or have a sense of identity, always erodes or shifts. If you feel your vision is intact, that’s what it comes down to.
Qieer Wang: For me, it’s during the creative process that I get to know myself better and from different perspectives. I purposely make my process interesting and make sure I really feel passionate about it. That’s what transforms my anxiety into satisfaction in a way; when I just draw, with each stroke there’s that feeling of breaking through anxiety.
It doesn’t matter how much you’re getting paid, it matters that you believe it when people tell you your work is good.
What points in your career stand out as times that have been particularly crushing?
Wyman: As a high school graduate with a weak academic record, I was crushed when I wasn’t accepted to study at Pratt Institute in New York. After a year at another college, I was finally accepted at Pratt, where I studied industrial design. This was the first time my self-worth was bolstered by my ability to design.
Beckwith: When I got to art school I wasn’t necessarily sure I was going to do graphic design. During freshman year at RISD, you do drawing classes and I was thinking, “I’m probably going to be one of the worst people here.” That was the first hurdle. But it was fine—it’s the classic imposter syndrome thing. Otherwise, with Instagram and the way everything is really visible now on the internet, you can see all these people’s practices, the press they get, and other external markers of achievement. On the other hand, when I was a junior and started getting more attention online, it made me feel really good at first, then that quickly faded away.
Beth Pickens: Our brains are always looking toward the negative. It’s hardwired into us: You can have 99 positive comments and one troll saying something awful and it’s the one troll who’ll haunt you. I tell people to get off social media as much as possible. It just facilitates compare and despair. Comparing other people’s exterior to your interior will always make you feel awful. People have to learn how to use the internet and social media as a tool that’s useful to them—not something to numb out with, or something that erodes your sense of self and your communication with other people.
How much does self-worth vacillate project to project, or day to day?
Beckwith: Now that I’m working at Nike, it’s a great job, but I don’t have that much energy to do my own work. I get waves of feeling if I haven’t made something in a while, and then I get an idea, and can chase it—but trying to ride those highs and lows can spill over into everyday life. You can’t let the low points make you feel like you’re a shitty person or a failure in other ways. Sometimes it’s just that you didn’t make something for a month, but it feels like a whole existential thing.
Wang: One important thing for me is that I want to combine the passion I put into my own work into client work so that they’re 100% the same. I get very easily bored of my work, so I have to try and push myself and manage myself mentally.
Are there any particular projects in your career that have bolstered your sense of worth?
Beckwith: My final degree project. I didn’t post it online until after graduation, so in school I got to just experience the pure worth of it and not think about how many likes it got. That sort of thinking is impossible to avoid: When you know you’ve made something good but it doesn’t get many likes, you think, “Why?” But if you don’t have that external validation, you can do it totally by your own standards.
Wang: I was doing gifs and illustration for a year, and it wasn’t really going anywhere. Then NPR contacted me asking if I wanted to do an animation for them. It was my first big job, and in that moment I just thought, “YES! I can do it!” Every little achievement builds up to more personal satisfaction.
Wyman: I felt most confident when my logotype and graphic system for the Mexican Olympics was accepted by the Mexican Olympic Committee. The logotype for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico is one of my biggest achievements. It did its job well 50 years ago, and it’s still young.
Uglow: A nice one for me is that the Royal Shakespeare Company are still talking about the #Dream40 project we did with them five or six years ago. I wrote an essay on all the things that went wrong with that project, but it’s lovely that the ideas have resonated for a long time. It’s the same for [the experimental publishing imprint] Editions at Play. We’ve done 10 books, we won a Peabody, and the British Library is archiving it, so it’s been recognized, but it takes a long time to actually believe all that. I don’t think anything is ever as good as I want it to be.
Does never feeling satisfied with a project ever feel like a defense mechanism?
Uglow: I like the process of thinking that it’s going to be brilliant, then it’s not. It doesn’t feel masochistic—that’s just my process. I often find that I’ve missed a lot of things… it’s like when you’re at home and wearing something you think is great until you go into the daylight and then you wish you’d stayed in. Life is basically that!
Pickens: A lot of creative people have tinkering brains, and one’s brain isn’t always the best judge of whether the work is great or not after the exciting limerence or honeymoon phase. You make the woods, then get lost in them. You think, “Is this making sense? Should you give up and be a nurse or something?” It’s really normal. But there are paths out of the woods—your vision is your vision.
What can creatives do to help bolster their sense of self-worth?
Wyman: Firstly, start off by just “showing up”—being present and involved in whatever you’re doing, without a preconceived attitude. Understand what you’re involved in. Secondly, try only to take on work that you like doing and give it your all. And finally, get your work out there. You don’t just design for yourself, so get it out there, and learn from the responses you get.
Pickens: Community is one of the foundations of self-worth. Surround yourself with people who also want to succeed. To grow your self-worth, you have to have it reflected back on you. People tell themselves crazy shit around their work. I think what’s crucial is that people have their own creative practice outside their jobs—it helps with the obsession for validation.
Community is one of the foundations of self-worth.
Do bigger budgets equal a greater sense of self-worth?
Wyman: I see this as an area where balance is important. On one hand, my self-worth is bolstered more by creating a powerful solution to a meaningful project than by the size of the budget. On the other hand, an inadequate budget can contribute to me failing to meet my financial responsibilities, which is damaging to my self-worth.
Does your sense of self-worth increase when you know a project is doing well?
Wang: It definitely does. I was working on a project for the Johns Hopkins Hospital [in Baltimore], making installations of motion work in the waiting room for the patients. I’m pretty depressed about that project now as it’s on hold. I want to do something that can build a bridge for communication, and make people feel less stigmatized.
Do you find it detrimental to your sense of self and well-being to tie your personal identity to your professional identity, or to your creative output?
Beckwith: As a graphic designer, that’s an interesting question. If you’re doing projects for yourself, it’s okay to really put yourself in it and sort of let the practice be intertwined with who you are. But when working for a client, you have to put them first. You’re not doing a good job if you’re just doing what you want to do for them. It’s about modulating and choosing when to have a more active role in your relationship to your practice.
Pickens: It’s so important for all creative people to really practice the concept of a weekend: having at least 24 hours in which they don’t do anything that could lead to earning money. Don’t reply to emails at all, just spend time purposefully inhabiting the other parts of yourself. That also makes the actual work more enjoyable. Work should fuel your life, not the reverse.
How does being freelance affect your sense of yourself and your work?
Wang: It’s really tough for everybody, I guess. I do put myself out there and try not to be too sensitive: Everything is about the experience, and so far, it’s been pretty nice. I’m lucky; when I approach people, even when they have no work for me, they might say, “I love your work, but it doesn’t match our style.” I have the strength to keep going with creative stuff even though I don’t get those jobs. But with both my work and me as a person, either you like it or you don’t. Frustration and rejection are normal.
Pickens: When a lot of freelance clients realize they’ve devalued their work compared to how much others who have learned to negotiate are making, they blame themselves. They see people getting paid more, and see the gender or racial pay gaps. There’s a wonderful organization called WAGE [Working Artists and the Greater Economy], founded by artists who created a suggested pay scale, whether the work is for a museum or artist-run space. There’s so much expectation, especially for emerging creatives, that people could or should be doing things for free, and it’s unclear when they can say no. People talking about how much money they’re getting or asking for is one of the biggest things we can do.
Do different cultural experiences enter the equation at all?
Wang: I was brought up in Chengdu in China, and I think when you start to respect yourself is probably different in the Western world than in my country. At least for my generation, to your parents and other people, you’re always just a kid; they don’t respect you as human. Maybe I’m too sensitive or rebellious, but I always got really mad that people weren’t respecting me all through high school. Then in my second year of undergrad—at that time I was doing comic books—I began to see that what I was doing was interesting, and people would say so on social media and things. It was only then that I realized I needed to respect myself more. In China it feels like people only care about you if you’re rich: Your worth is how you’re valued in money.
How much does self-worth as a creative change with age, or experience?
Wyman: Experience has taught me a few tricks, and I know age will only stretch so far. I’m 81 and still love working. My confidence level still fluctuates, but along with my family and my work, my self-worth is doing well.
Uglow: I think I had much more ambition when I was younger. As you get older, you realize which bits of what you do are of value. I have terrible self-worth issues, I really do, and that’s misunderstood—it’s a mental health thing. Self-worth isn’t a given. There are two options: either you accept the fact you’re really good and become insufferable, or you don’t, in which case you’re going to be tormented by the fact that for you it’s just not good enough, and you have to accept that every day. I can’t bear those people who think what they’re doing is significant and special. We’re making pretty pictures, everyone, calm down!
Wang: When I’d just started I was like a brave kid—I’d just blindly put myself out there and see what happened. But with experience I started to realize what skills I needed, and how I worked, and I got more confident. I think the point is I need more respect from myself: Even though people might be telling you how good you are, if you don’t realize it yourself, it makes no sense.
Beckwith: It definitely does—at the very least it changes with life experience. When I went into school I was very immature in a lot of ways, and it took a lot of different experiences and time and practice to end up where I am now, and that’s always a process. But I guess the big message is that it’s okay to take an active role in how you feel about your practice. But that’s not to say you should always feel good, or be blind to where you can improve.