Ask any creative person what their cringiest work was, and I'll bet you'll get a relatively quick answer. Good creatives are very self-aware, often to the point of self-paralysis. In fact, of all the creatives I know, I rarely can have a conversation with one of them without hearing about how something they made, created, or was excited about fell completely flat.
I struggle with this more than I'd like to admit in a lot of areas. I have ideas for jewelry that sound great in my head and just don't translate into the real world once the "making" part starts. Just over this weekend, during my purge of my office, I threw away more than a handful of unsuccessful jewelry pieces that were cool in my head but lacking in execution. As sad as I was that they didn't work out, I was proud of myself for having the standards to recognize that these were not only not good enough to sell, but they weren't good enough to keep either. Away they went, never to be seen again.
The balancing act of "Is this my standards maturing" or "Is this me being more self critical" or "Have I just gotten better at a thing" is one of those things every maker and creative has to figure out for themselves. In June of 2018, as I started to feel the effects of what would later be my cancer diagnosis, I made my very first ever cutting board. I didn't make it from wood I processed myself, and instead my nephew and I made it from a kit purchased at Woodcraft in Connecticut. It was a lovely kit, for sure, and all it took was gluing it together, trimming it, sanding it, and finishing it. Was it perfect? Not even close, but it was damn good.
The second board ever would be made in January of 2019. As if the first one wasn't ambitious enough, this time I decided I would not only make my first ever board from scratch, but I would do it by milling my sizing my own boards, cutting a template with my bandsaw, sanding obsessively to flatten it, and then learning on the fly how to properly use a router to do the round over. I won't even get started on the finishing process, something I've gotten really good at over the last two years. In the end, however, that board was awesome. People still can't believe that my first ever "from scratch" board was a polar bear using techniques I had literally never used before including cutting a shape on a bandsaw.
This isn't supposed to be a trip down memory lane, though, and there's a reason I've sort of turned it into one. If you look at my early boards, what you'll see are good solid well-made boards. If you look at the ones I make now, there's just a level of finesse to them that can't be explained easily. The finish I get is exceptional. The shaping? Usually flawless. I add feet with better screws that won't rust (the old ones didn't either, but the ones I use now I know for sure are incapable of rusting). I include balm to care for the board since it should last years. I give care instructions so people know what to do after investing so much into a board. Everything about the work I do now screams "premium." Not "This is good stuff" but "Wow, this is really good stuff."
So why in God's name would I go back and look at pictures of the polar bear board or any of my first few boards?
Because it's all about growth, that's why, and the fastest way to measure your growth is to look at work you were proud of in the beginning and see how far your work has come today. While a lot of creatives like to lock up their old stuff and pretend it was never made, there are more than a few who go back into their archives and pull out something they loved then but can't stand now, and to those people I say "You are my people." The ones who are constantly seeking growth and who seek it properly, by comparing themselves to themselves rather than comparing themselves to others, are the ones I want to be around.
Growth isn't about how well you're keeping up with others around you, it's about how far along your road you've traveled. I love looking at my old stuff because it gives me a feeling that the work I've put in has resulted in me being better at what I do.
Here's a homework assignment for you. Go grab a piece of your old work. Maybe it's a photo you took as you were learning your camera. Maybe a sculpture you made with half the tools you have now. Maybe a painting that looks like someone stomped on the tubes of paint and shot onto a canvas. Maybe it's that janky little bandsaw box you can't stand to think about and would never put out into the world today. Embrace all of your roots and then stand back and enjoy the tree that grew above them. You'll be surprised how much you've grown!