It’s OK To Look Back and Cringe

One of the cold hard facts of the creative life is that we all have some past work that we’re not proud of. We’ve all put our names on projects in the past (maybe not even the very distant past) that we now hope will be forgotten. Sometimes the most painful part of seeing old projects is remembering how much I liked them at the time. That introspective regret is probably a common experience in any line of work, but in creative work it can be especially discouraging.

It’s okay to look back and cringe. As creatives, if you aren’t looking back and cringing you aren’t getting better.
—@SusanGKoge via @99u

“It’s ok to look back and cringe.”

A few days ago, I saw this quotation from a talk by Susan Gregg Koger, Founder & Chief Creative Officer of ModCloth. She was speaking at the 99u conference and what she said made an impression on a number of people, for good reason: It’s a refreshing reminder that all of us are in process.

As we develop, we’ll have good reason to critique the work of our younger selves. The work that we’re not happy with might not disappear as quickly as we’d like, but there’s no reason to lament that. If your goal is to have a perfect record, you’re not going to do much–you’ll be too scared to try things. The only reason to think about what you don’t like in your old projects is to do something different in your new projects. Looking in the rearview mirror is useful at times, but it’s a bad way to drive.

Focusing on the creative act, not the final product

Our interns (5 and 3 years old) create a prodigious amount of artwork. My sweet five-year-old girl loves coloring and has recently added mixed media to her portfolio, cutting and gluing things together in all manner of combinations. Some things she has made we’ve kept for years, and it’s interesting to see her find them again. She turns them around, half-remembering the crayon lines and bits of paper. Even more interesting is that she doesn’t linger on those old pieces very long. She’s too young to be embarrassed about the past, and usually too busy making her current project to give it much thought. She’s more engaged in the creative act, and less worried about the final products.

The reality is that there will be lots of “final” products, and some of them will be cringe-worthy when you see them again in a year or five years. Take those cringing moments as a sign that your taste is being refined, and your design sensibilities are being sharpened, and move on. There’s a lot more work to do.