And The Award Goes To… Your Self Esteem!
By Raphael Elisha
It’s no secret that the advertising industry loves awards. Given the number of award ceremonies out there, it would appear we enjoy giving out awards as much as we enjoy receiving them. But what is it about receiving an award that makes it so alluring? And why does it seem to underpin so much of our motivation to create good work?
Essentially, an award is a recognition of your talents by your peers. It says, “well done, we like this, we think it’s better than all of this other stuff”. And on the surface, that seems like a fair reward for your efforts. It’s something positive; something both encouraging and elevating. But there is also something deeper at play, something more destructive. Validation.
When we experience joy from receiving an award, we are effectively basing our sense of adequacy or worth on the validation of others. We are giving someone else the power to decide what is worthy and what is not. And in doing so, we inadvertently place greater weight on the opinions of a select few, rather than the one that matters most—our own.
So where’s the harm in this? Well, if by chance, the people in whom you have entrusted your self-worth are completely and consistently in sync with your own values, then no harm will come to you, because they will continue to validate the very things you hold dear. Unfortunately the official number of times two individuals have shared each other’s exact values is zero. So you’re setting yourself up for disaster when you pour your heart into an idea, nurse it, watch it grow, and then have it completely ignored by jury-panellist ‘John’, who doesn’t like your ironic take on the newest Tesla HQ which has set up shop in the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Our feeling of self-worth is incredibly important to our own sense of identity. I would go as far as to say that it constitutes half of our anxious energy. The other half is dictated by our perception of our own self-efficacy (the extent to which we think we have the ability to achieve what it is we wish to achieve in any given situation). These two dimensions always operate in tandem and essentially provide the basis for our motivations. Where this becomes problematic, is if you relinquish your control or agency over your own worth or sense of efficacy.
If your validation comes from someone else, then you are at their mercy because in truth, you are entirely powerless to control what they think of you or your work. The only person you can control is you. But this isn’t a setback—it is in fact the most empowering proposition you can consider. To realise that you, and only you, are in charge of what is good or not good, liked or not liked, is the greatest gift of all. It is freedom.
But if you don’t come to that realisation, not only can you begin to feel worthless and incompetent, but powerless, too. And from this negative cocktail of emotion, destructive anxiety can ensue. You begin to doubt your competency. You begin to feel resentful toward your colleagues and the industry at large. You become frustrated and that frustration grows into anger.
The truth is, everything is subjective. And when it comes to matters of creativity, the subjective nature of things becomes even more complex. Fill a cinema with 200 viewers and mathematics tells you that you will see a natural bell curve of opinion, from utter dislike to complete fascination. Everybody saw the same film, the same content, and yet, based on their own experiences (even their own genetic makeup!) they each walk away with a different opinion. So who’s right? How do you emphasize one person’s opinion over another? You can’t, we are all equal. Our experiences are all we have.
Okay, so it’s all well and good to recognise that you might be placing your worth in another’s hands, but what can you do about it? How do you regain stability in your own sense of identity? Like anything, it takes practice. If you’ve sought out the validation of others for years and years and years, then you’ve become damn good at it. Your brain has formed some rehearsed pathways and thought patterns that will want to continue doing what they do (taking the path of least resistance). But you CAN change this. You have to start by noticing what you’re feeling, when you’re feeling it. Whilst it can sometimes slip under the radar, we can all generally tell when we’re feeling tense or anxious.
It’s likely that the processes used in agencies serve to reinforce validation-seeking tendencies. Think through a day in the office: you write up a bunch of ideas for a new brief, you’re liking them a lot, you whittle them down to five, and then present them to your CD. He or she looks through them, says that there’s potential but doesn’t think you’ve hit the nail on the head. They say they’re weak and a little derivative. In that moment, maybe you feel a quick shot of adrenaline (the fear kind) or maybe you suddenly feel despondent; deflated. Maybe you’re angry, too, because you worked hard on these and this ‘entitled fuckwit’ has defecated all over them.
Now is the time to take a step back and consider what you’re feeling. And when I say this, I mean beyond the anger, beyond the distress, beyond the angst. Take some time to consider what this CD might be touching on inside you that’s triggering these thoughts and feelings. Over time, you’ve probably intertwined your creative output with your sense of who you are. As we’ve touched on, you have coupled your self-worth to this. But, ask yourself: are you less of a person, or a creator, because this CD, who is also just a person, has disagreed with your take?
Before he or she said anything, you were very happy with the ideas. In theory, if you were the CD and someone came to you with these ideas, you would have the opposite reaction to your CD. What does that say about the actual value of these ideas? It says that they’re subjective and that’s it. But what does it then say about your state of mind? Well, perhaps you can notice that when your CD says this to you, you aren’t able to see it for what it is – just a simple disagreement of values between two equal people – but rather, you implicate the very essence of your being. You believe, in that moment, that his or her feedback represents your value as a human being and this creates a negative feeling of inadequacy. This is the thing to notice.
In a situation like this, or in a situation where you are not awarded for your efforts, notice that if you’re distressed, angry or despondent, you’re probably feeling inadequate. Then remind yourself that this is not rational. That you are a multifaceted individual, with many interests, perspectives, likes and dislikes, which are unique to you and you, alone. Tell yourself this. And then, when that same feeling comes up again in twenty minutes (because it’s so rehearsed) notice the feeling of inadequacy, accept it and then tell yourself that it’s not real. It does not represent you. Repeat the reasons above. Keep doing this until it starts to become automatic. Over time, you will notice that you’re not as negatively affected by others’ opinions. You can simultaneously take comfort in the work and enjoy it, but separate this enjoyment from the reactions of others.
Like the rush of a great new idea, awards can be awesome. Just don’t let the validation of others win out on the night.