You may be in the mud right now. Or getting ready to dive into it. You can’t avoid it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as awful as it was for me. Here are some things I learned along my own path—hopefully they will help you get through the hard part faster than I did, and with more confidence in your work:

1. Listen to your peers, your teachers, and your family, but take everything they say with a pinch of salt. You don’t know everything, but neither do they. There will be times when you need to trust your own instincts and times when you have to have to really listen to someone else’s opinion in order to grow. To figure out what’s called for in a given situation, gauge your own comfort level. I always try to ignore any advice that makes me uncomfortable. Trust your instincts.

2. Inspire yourself. I’m always looking for inspiration, from conversations about work and life with friends, from novels, from visiting galleries, from magazines. I make a point of feeding my imagination. One thing I really love to do is watch documentaries while drawing, especially ones about creative people. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, about the legendary magazine editor, is a great one. I’m inspired by her passion for life, her knack for making the mundane magnificent, and her insistence on owning her so-called “flaws.” I love how she found inspiration in everything—she didn’t live in a bubble; she sat on the edge of the world looking out at everything. Other good ones: Art & Copy, Eames: The Architect and the Painter, Beautiful Losers, Women Art Revolution, Beauty Is Embarrassing, The Universe of Keith Haring, and the entire 10 hours of extras from the director’s cut of The Lord Of The Rings. Hearing about another person’s journey helps me keep traveling through my own.

3. Don’t get caught up in other people’s success. There will always be someone more successful than you. Obsessing about what they have and you don’t is a waste of time and energy, and it can paralyze you so you never create anything again. Try instead to focus on their struggle—what they went through to get where they are. That, in my opinion, is where true inspiration lies.

4. Dream big, but keep your dreams kinda vague. I’ve always dreamed of being a successful artist, but I’ve tried not to be too specific about what “success” means. Circumstances are constantly changing, and you want your dreams to be flexible enough to bend to accommodate them, without breaking. After graduating from college, I started writing wish/task lists like this:

• Do an illustration for a magazine
• Create a print design
• Make a zine
• Collaborate with another artist
• Travel to six different countries.

I never specified which magazine I wanted to contribute to, or whom I wanted to collaborate with—I kept the details completely open and got to work. A year later I looked back and was thrilled to see that I had completed all but one! (I only made it to four different countries.)

Sometimes I see peers sneer at opportunities because they don’t match their picture of what they wanted, or they aren’t quite what they expected, or they aren’t “good enough.” But great opportunities won’t be handed to you. You have to build on every small opportunity to catch the bigger ones.

5. Be competitive. I’ve always believed competition is healthy. Use what your friends and peers are up to to inspire you to improve—not as target practice. If I see someone else working with a client I really want to work for, I don’t think, Damn them!! I think, Hmm…well, if they can do it, so can I. It isn’t about beating anyone, it’s about working hard to be the best I can be. You don’t after all win a match by sitting on the sidelines and watching others play—you win by getting involved and doing your best.

6. Be nice. There is a big difference between friendly competition and arrogance, and the latter won’t make you any friends. “But I’m not here to make friends!” Well, you won’t last long without them. Having friends in your field means you’ll not only have supporters for your work, but you’ll also have a source of invaluable practical advice. These are the people you can call up and ask, “How much should I ask for on this project?” or “How do I write an invoice?” or “What is this person like to work for?” Also, friends share work with friends. If I’m offered a job that I don’t have time to do, I will recommend one of my friends. But most important, success isn’t nearly as much fun if you don’t have people to share it with. Share your ideas and help your friends and peers as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for their help in return. Don’t be too precious with your ideas. Your friends will be inspired by you, but you will also be inspired by them. You will make one another better.

7. Work hard. This one is the most obvious, but it is of the upmost importance. Like I said, opportunities will not be handed to you, and if you have one great job, that doesn’t mean others will necessarily follow. or immediately follow. I have sent out hundreds of emails that have never been answered, but I don’t let that get to me. Whenever I’m not working on for-pay pieces, I’m working on my personal stuff and trying to get it out there. You never know where an opportunity will come from so the more work you put out into the world, the more “lucky breaks” you’ll get.

8. View every obstacle as a chance to get stronger. Every failure teaches you what you need to do to get better for next time. It may take a while to get over the pain and the anger to see the strength, but that’s OK. Take your time! I try to repeat this little mantra to myself: “Don’t get mad, get drawing.” Go ahead and use it, replacing “drawing” with dancing, writing, [insert passion here]. It’s a reminder that even when things aren’t working in your favor, all you have to do is carry on. Keep drawing. Keep painting. Keep writing. Keep practicing. That way, when an opportunity comes along, you’ll be able to not just get your foot in the door, but kick it down. ♦