Last month, I entered a photograph into the State Fair Photography competition. It's not like a super hip competition or a cool place to get seen, but it's a fun place my family often goes.
I didn't win.
It's not like there were very many entries in the category.
There were even less last year.
I didn't win then, either.
My daughter quietly asked, “Why didn’t you win, Mom?”
But I also don't feel bummed about it, nor do I regret entering. There is no sting and no shame. And I think that may be because I have had a solid 25 years of losing under my belt.
I entered the Reflections program (national kids art competition) every year when I was young. Some years I did art, others literature, and finally film/video when I got older. But my real mainstay was music. From 1st grade through Junior High, I entered the Musical Composition category religiously.
I also lost just about every year.
It stung more back then.
The thing is, I knew I was good at the piano. Not just okay. I also knew I was decent at composing. And so I poured blood and sweat into those original tunes. I remember spending hours with a pencil painstakingly writing out the musical notation and writing the notes on the staff (no small feat for a 1st grader that can barely write letters!). By the time I would turn in my song, I was convinced I had a pretty good chance.
Each year, I usually watched friends win, and I ended up mostly with nothing. Except maybe a few tears and a few more reassuring, motivational words from my mom. Heaven only knows why I kept at it.
In 9th grade I finally won big. I made a short film (with an original composition as the score!) that was awarded at the State level. You'd think it would've felt super victorious after all those years. And as fun as winning is, I knew in my heart I hadn't worked much harder or felt different genius that year. For some reason, I had made something that just resonated better with the judges.
I've had other similar experiences. It's always surprising to see which photos get more attention or featured. (I'm even fascinated to see which images clients end up printing!) It's not like they're always my favorites or what I consider my best work. And it's not like my process is much different from project to project--they're all just products of waking up and doing my work every day.
I still occasionally submit things to competitions.
I don't do it because I need a judge to tell me if I'm good or not. I certainly don't need someone to rank me and tell me where they think I fit in a hierarchy of artists.
I don't do it for attention or praise or validation--or insecurity, either.
I do it for me. And to create.
I submitted a photo to the state fair this year because I wanted to show my children that I think it's worth it to create *something*. And doubly worth it to put yourself out there and be vulnerable and put your heart's work out into your community--regardless of accolades or awards.
Someone putting a ribbon on my work does not make it my best work or does not signify if my ideas matter or don't matter. Recognition is cute, and winning is fun, but doesn't matter, doesn't matter, doesn't matter. I will gladly pay money to enter competitions and lose them in front of my children if I can show my kids that it's worth doing--even throughout adulthood--without a win.
Because you know what I do have? I have a collection of music that I wrote as a child. Music that I never would've written without a competition and a deadline to meet. Sheets of staff paper, stacked year after year, that show progress. That show persistence. That show potential. That show that creative work is really hard work, and it is good. There are a few old trophies sitting in my old bedroom at my parents' house. But I haven't looked at them in over a decade. They are nothing compared to those songs.
You know what else I have? I have more confidence than ever. I’ve now had 25 years of experience figuring out that I can’t look outward to prove my growth or my artistry. Judges have their own specific tastes, social media has it’s own algorithms and games, and none of the popularity contests or success measurements need to affect how I feel about my own work.
I have grown and progressed like crazy. And it doesn’t matter if others see it because I know I’m continually improving and continually on the cusp of making my best work. You can’t earn this feeling of self-worth through only winning!—and you certainly can’t earn it by never putting yourself out there.
Tonight I worked with my kindergartener on finishing up her first Reflections entries. I didn't force her to participate. She came home a few weeks ago with that same familiar excitement, zealous to do it all, and I laughed. Sure enough, she's now got an entry for photography, art, literature, and this afternoon we filmed her dance entry.
I'd love for her to win something (just an honorable mention somewhere?) so she doesn't get discouraged, but she's competing against 2nd graders and I don't exactly anticipate trophies.
Regardless of the results, she has brainstormed and developed ideas and carefully worked to the very limits of her creative and physical abilities. At the end of the day we'll have a thoughtful mounted painting, a tender photograph, her best writing to date, and a video of her very first choreography from the age of 5. And I am pretty crazy proud.
You know, losing just isn't all it's cracked up to be.