The Sketchnoter’s Inner Critic

When learning a new skill, one of the biggest traps that you can fall into is letting the negative voice inside your head dictate where you go.

Today I’d like to directly address that voice.

What the Sketchnoter’s Inner Critic Sounds Like

Let me set the stage by describing what I think the sketchnoter’s inner critic most often sounds like.

What we do as sketchnoters is take the information that we’re reading in books, or listening to in podcasts, or hearing at live events, and we map those ideas out.

Sometimes we use stick figures and other drawings, other times we use containers like clouds and boxes plus connecting lines to show how those ideas are related to each other.

What the sketchnoter’s inner critic most often sounds like.

No matter the specific format that your sketchnotes take, the same types of negative thoughts tend to come up, thoughts like this doesn’t look good enough or maybe I’m not capturing enough.

It’s easy for those specific negative thoughts to generalize to things like I’m bad at this and I should just quit.

The first thing that I want to emphasize is that those thoughts are common.

Not too long ago within Verbal to Visual I posted a poll asking this question: How often does your inner critic crop up while sketchnoting?

For the members of Verbal to Visual, who are working to master their sketchnoting skills, the inner critic crops up pretty darn often.

For most sketchnoters the answer is often, so know that you’re not the only person who experiences those negative thoughts.

Even though I’ve been doing this for a decade now, they still crop up for me too.

The first step in overcoming thoughts like those is first to simply acknowledge them. Don’t feel like you have to try to block these out completely. That strategy likely won’t work.

I like what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about fear on the creative journey:

Elizabeth Gilbert on the voice of fear throughout the creative journey.

Fear gets a seat, and it gets a voice, but it doesn’t get a vote. It doesn’t get to decide where you go next.

So that brings up the question: what do you do with those negative thoughts, and how do you decide where to go next?

Shift Your Perspective

The first thing that I try to do in those situations when my inner critic is getting loud is to shift my perspective, and that’s what I encourage you to do as well.

When you’re initially working on a new sketchnote, it’s easy to stay stuck in a close-up view of it. From that perspective, the thing that might stand out to you the most is the aesthetic quality of it, how it looks, and it might not look as good as you want it to.

When your inner critic gets loud, start by stepping back and gaining some perspective on your work.

But those aesthetic goals are often not the most important (if they’re important at all), which is why I encourage you to literally or figuratively take a step back. Zoom out a bit and ask yourself: why are you taking these notes in the first place?

Remind yourself of the purpose for reading that book or listening to that podcast or going to that event.

When you do that zooming out and connecting with your initial purpose, you might realize that you actually met a bunch of your learning goals, or that your messy map of ideas helped you to better identify the problem you’re working on and some potential solutions.

Those are meaningful and successful outcomes.

If you zoom out and those negative thoughts don’t get any quieter, you might try getting an outside opinion. Ask someone you trust to come take a look. Let them know what you’re working on and get their feedback on it.

That outside opinion might help you break free from the negative loop that’s playing inside your head.

Another technique for shifting your perspective was suggested by Kathleen Murphy in response to the poll that I posted:

A great way to balance out your perspective.

What I like about that approach is that it forces you to look at the good without ignoring the things that you’d like to improve. 

This perspective shift is just step one in the process. The next step is to do something with that new perspective. 

Build Some Momentum

The most annoying thing about your inner critic is that it probably has lots to say.

So if you keep listening to it, before long you’ll become surrounded and start to feel paralyzed. That paralysis of overthinking is what we want to avoid.

Shifting your perspective is how you create a little bit of space amongst all those thoughts, but once you’ve got that window you need to take some action.

Getting lost in your thoughts won’t lead to clarity, but taking some steps away from them likely will.

It’s in the taking of a few steps away from those thoughts that you’re most likely to find clarity. That clarity won’t come from continuing to sit and do nothing besides regurgitating negative thoughts.

So my encouragement here is to identify one single action that you can take, and then take it.

That action might be picking one idea from your original sketchnote and redrawing it. Pick just one thing to improve about it and make that improvement.

It could also mean stepping away from that sketchnote entirely and digging into the next chapter in your book or the next podcast episode. Let new ideas capture your attention.

This idea of maintaining momentum is important for Kirsten Paulik as well:

Default to action.

I love those ideas of continuing to draw to stay ahead of your inner critic and then doing something with your notes as soon as possible.

I think of sketchnoting as a tool to help bridge the gap between ideas and action. The things that you’re learning about and taking visual notes on, some of them might just be for your own enjoyment, but most of the time it’s because you want to apply those ideas in some way to your professional or personal life.

So don’t forget that that’s the whole point – it’s not to create a pretty picture, it’s to broaden your worldview and to inform the actions that you take.

That’s why I think that defaulting to some sort of action is a great way to keep your inner critic at bay, to keep it from paralyzing you.

Build Your Sketchnoting Skills in Community

If you’d like an outside perspective on whatever it is you’re working on, then come join us inside of Verbal to Visual.

In addition to posting polls like the one I shared above, that is also a place for you to share your sketchnotes at any stage in your process to get feedback from me and other community members.

You’ll also find a full library of sketchnoting courses and regular live workshops to help you continue building your skills:

You can learn more and sign up here.

I hope the ideas that I shared above help to keep your inner critic from dominating the conversation.

Good luck with your next sketchnote.