Forming judgments about whether something is valuable or not is a skill that’s increasingly being erased. Youtube recently removed the “dislike” count, leaving viewers disoriented as to the quality of videos they’re watching, while platforms like Facebook and Instagram have always carefully cultivated only positive markers of judgment (“likes” and “hearts” respectively).
This trend towards my old Crunch gym’s motto—No Judgments—might be well intentioned, but does a disservice to freelancers and to the creative process in general.
Judgments Give Direction
When we look at work we judge to be great and look at work we judge to be crap, we’re positing a direction for ourselves: go toward the stuff we judge to be great and avoid the stuff we judge to be crap.
If we take away our ability to judge, we also take away our ability to set a direction for ourselves, in which case we easily get lost. If everything is as good as everything else and all directions are equally valid, where do we go? How do we find what’s ours to find?
We are encouraged, in our moment, to say yes to everything—or at least to as many things as we can. Unsure of where to go, we flit from thing to thing, making many starts and stops and finishing nowhere.¹
This hurts us, of course, because
The Creative Process is Judgment
Every project we’ve ever completed is comprised of hundreds of judgment calls, some big and some tiny, where we decided on one fork in the road as opposed to another because we thought it would make the product better, by our own definition.
When we’re unsure if one thing is preferable to another and we’re unwilling to make the call, this uncertainty is bound to show up in our work. We get paralyzed. We’re not able to decide on one path or another, so we leave work unfinished.
I do this all the time.
I start a project, try out a bunch of things, get excited about a new technique, get frazzled as to whether I prefer the new technique or the old technique, flip flop between the two, stand up, sit down and finally give the whole thing up after trying fifty directions when I really just needed one.
We’re also unable to stick with learning and deepening our craft, because every form of skill acquisition is really built on there being right (better, more valuable) ways and wrong (bad, less valuable) ways of doing things—at least to begin with.
Having a framework of things to do and things not to do gives us a set of limitations to move towards and then, maybe, beyond.
How to Judge
There is a section of the judgment continuum that isn’t useful, of course.
Scrolling through Instagram at two in the morning looking at what others have achieved and comparing our own measly output isn’t very helpful. Judging our work to be helplessly rubbish now and in perpetuity is also unhelpful. These sad and common instances don’t exemplify good use of our judgment faculties.
Dwelling on and getting off on our pre-imposed beliefs about what we can or can’t do, what our work can or can’t be, is a waste of energy.
Don’t judge in a blanket way.
Use judgment to pave a way forward for yourself. Keep your judgments specific and relevant only to your next steps forward, and no further.
If you’re looking to improve your illustration work, look at the work of someone who has a similar level of skill to you, but whose work is just a bit better.
Unleash that inner critter that’s been banging up your brain and give him something useful to latch on to and judge and criticize. Tear down your work and compare, point-by-point, with the work of that Slightly Better Artist.
After your tears have dried you will have, in point form, all the ways your work could improve and you rename that sheet of paper Goals for the New Year and you’ll be on your way.
Don’t compare your work to someone at the top of your industry, nor to folks’ work whose techniques, at your current level, you can’t yet figure out. File those works away as inspiration, as north stars, but don’t judge your work by the brightness of stars when you’re down on the ground. Judge your work by the dim light of your neighbor’s window and make your way across the street.
Judgment Ain’t Bad
Our ability to judge isn’t an arbitrary skill.
Used in an intelligent way, it can light up the next steps forward along our paths and give us focus by leading us toward things we deem valuable and move us away from places we’d rather avoid.
Of course, somewhere along the road we’ll look up and realize that there were, hidden in the things we’d thrown out and along paths we chose to abandon, many invaluable treasures—but that’s another topic for another post.
1. Han, B. (2015). The Burnout Society. Stanford Briefs.