When People Try to Use You

October 19, 2012


I just wanted to send this because it’s always nice to be appreciated. Your comics are beautiful and I think that the even more important thing is that the advice you give is completely true. I have tried to find ways to explain the creative-process to my parents or friends who asked, “How can you come up with this stuff?” My answer had always been, “I don’t know. I practice?” Comparing my answer to yours I feel rather stupid, but you have a wonderful turn-of-phrase and can clearly explain what most of us can’t.

I do have one question for you, though, and I’m not entirely sure about how to go about solving the problem.

My parents and friends are really encouraging with my design work in school (I’m a New Media Designer), but I find that sometimes I end up being smothered by their help. They start suggesting ideas and offering every scrap of advice on colors and how I should design things. I do take their advice and perhaps make a few compositions and stuff out of it, but in the end most of it doesn’t turn out great and I end up taking bits and pieces from all of them and making my own design (as I should). The only issue with this is that if they don’t see their suggestions plainly, they get discouraged and even angry. I’m not sure how to deal with that sort of response from people. They aren’t upset because it looks bad or because I didn’t work on their suggestions (I had) but they were upset that their work wasn’t featured in the end result.

It is my art and it is their suggestions, but rather than saying: “Go make your own art” and sounding extremely stuck-up I find myself hanging my head and apologizing all the time. I want to know what to say to them to get them to understand that it isn’t that I’m being ungrateful to them.

Thanks a bunch, and keep working on your comics. They are wonderful!

Megan McNeice

ps. I’m not sure why, but when I read your narration your voice ends up sounding like Bob Ross.


Hey Megan,

Thanks for writing! I know exactly how you feel.

Talent is a wage that you earn over time. You work thousands of hours and slowly store up talent in the bank. But when others come along and see the tiny fortune of talent you’ve accrued, they don’t see the many hours of your life you have spent, they only see the amount you have.

A lot of people don’t think talent is earned, they think it’s inherited. Many people think talent is something you’re born with. When they ask you to create something, from their perspective, they’re not asking much, only that you share a resource you seem to have an abundance of. They don’t understand that trying to wield your talent to their ends is like trying to steal money a person has worked a lifetime to earn. You have the right to spend that money in whatever direction you see fit. They don’t.

Your art is a beautiful microphone that you’ve sacrificed a good portion of your life to create. But it’s worth it, because now you can use that microphone to amplify your voice to people, to communicate and be heard. But when people see the microphone you’ve made, they think, wouldn’t it be great if my voice and my ideas and my thoughts were amplified and carried out to people through that microphone. So they try to get on stage and push you off and sing through your microphone. It’s rude and insensitive.

This problem won’t disappear over time. The more talented you become, the more people will want to use your talents toward their own ends. Right now it’s family and friends, but soon it will be total strangers coming out of the blue. My friend Nicholas is an artistic monster, and gets emails from people like that all the time. Here’s a funny comic he drew about one of them:

Page 1

Page 2

What’s great about this comic is that besides the names that Nick changed, the email is VERBATIM.

Here’s the deal, it is your right to use your talents as you see fit. No one can take advantage of your talents without your permission.

What that means is if you feel taken advantage of, it’s usually your fault. It’s your responsibility to train and inform the people around you of your rights so they know he where the line is. 99 percent of the time, people act that way not because they want to use you, but because they are ignorant of what they’re asking.

Even informed, fellow artists may try to use you. I am ashamed to say I once caught myself trying to get my friend Josh Ulrich to color one of my comics for no compensation. By the end of the conversation I had to apologize to him.

Sometimes people will try to tell you what to do because they love you and care about you. My dad gives me ideas for where I should take my art all the time, because he wants to help my career and he wants the best for me. I ignore pretty much everything he says, but he still offers up suggestions in hopes that he might give me some kind of insight or advantage that will be useful for me. Once, something my dad said actually did really come in handy. Mal and Chad, the graphic novel series I now work on, originally began with a different premise– and my dad helped me realize it was the wrong direction. More on that here.

The thing is, the people in your life need to know that you have the final word on what’s a useful suggestion and what’s not. If you are implementing and trying out their suggestions, you’re telling them that they are your boss. It’s great to be humble and learn from everyone, but you need to listen to your own tastes and instincts first if you hope to hone them in a direction you’ll be pleased with. I’d recommend from now on you only use people’s advice if you truly believe in it.

When people step on your rights, it’s really easy to get angry and annoyed. I struggle with this. I’d rather blow them off, or avoid confrontation with them than try to teach them how to treat artists properly. But the thing is, if you let them keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll continue on to the next artist they come to, and try to step on their rights. It’s best to be patient and understanding, and explain to people what they’re doing and how they make you feel so they won’t do that to anyone else.

Sometimes you don’t have time to explain all these things to people, so I use phrases like these:

“At this stage in the work, I’m not looking for critique or suggestions, thank you though.”

“I have so many ideas of my own I’d like to make, I don’t know if I’ll have time to get to yours. Thanks for the input, though!”

Another thing that helps is framing the terms of your relationship with the person before it begins. I realized yesterday while dealing with a free-lance customer that I had forgotten to define exactly how much edits they could request of me, and what kind of control they could have over the commission, and as a result, they were making me rework a piece way too much. It was my fault though, for not telling them what they could expect.

Talking to people about these things is sticky and uncomfortable, but it’s part of being an artist. All of us have to deal with it. I don’t know the answer to your specific problem, but I hope some of these ideas help.


Bob Ross



7 Responses to When People Try to Use You

  1. Sam Washburn on October 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    In my humble opinion, the issue is Input vs. Instruction.

    So.. Learn these phrases :)

    “I tried that. It didn’t work out well.” And you should try the ideas of others often. It can sometimes freshen things up when you get stuck in a rut.

    “Thanks for the input but, I feel I need to go this one alone.” Family should respect a need for personal growth.

    “That just won’t work. Here’s the reason.” If you’re confident enough about the reason. Nip it in the bud.

    Often, in my projects, I find that people just want to give input because they are excited to be a part of the excellence they see in it. They project themselves onto your work. The most gentle way of bringing them around that I found is to help them see the difference between “giving input” and “giving instructions”.

    “Oh, I’m sorry you were expecting more. I was just looking for general input, not specific details.”

    You need to communicate to them that “input” is something to be considered and selectively used. Instructions are to be obeyed. Many don’t know the difference. And often, people just want to be acknowledged for their input. “I know a lot of what you talked about didn’t end up in the piece, but your input really helped me try things and get over that artist block.”, or “You had a good idea, but I kind of went with the flow. Maybe I’ll use your it in another piece.”

    There are times to humbly and honestly consider others’ ideas; times to graciously turn them down; and times to tell them to stick their idea where the sun don’t shine. I hope you find that balance. :)


    • stephen on October 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Great wisdom Sam– thank you!

  2. Traci on October 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I love that you signed this Bob Ross. :)

  3. Thea on October 29, 2012 at 5:40 am

    Another tactic is to simply not share works in progress with people like this. We all need constructive feedback, but it’s best to get it from colleagues and friends who are also new media designers, because they will know what they’re talking about.

    Stephen King wrote in “On Writing” that one should always have a first draft that is created strictly with the “door closed,” that is, done with no input from anyone. Of course he was talking about writing, which is a different process all together…but I think it still applies. It’s dangerous, and can be destructive to the work, to share a piece of art with the world when it’s not yet strong enough to take criticism. It needs to be able to stand on its own, to be confidant enough to weather a storm of suggested alterations.

    It sounds like Megan already knows how to protect her work from this storm, keeping true to her own vision. But protecting herself? That’s harder.

    Good insight and advice, though. :)

    • stephen on October 31, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      Thanks for your advice here– I think there really is something to letting your work ripen before you let others see it.

  4. Everette Manvelito on April 9, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    If you are contemplating what you want to do when you leave school or further education a great piece of advice is to do something that you are passionate about. You are going to be working a long time and you are now in a position of power. By laying down some carefully planned foundations now, you will be able to start out your working life, doing a job that inspires you and is interesting to you. Fashion is an interesting subject to choose for many reasons. One of the advantages of taking up a career in fashion is that there are so many branches to the subject and different roads you can choose to go down. -

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  5. katy on December 22, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    If they think you have something they want, watch out. They’devising their plan of action. Don’t give these types a hint of what you have or even a taste of maybe we can… They’ll act all sweet and nice-manipulation. When you don’t give in, watch them be secretly angry (even though it’s them that’s rude) and disappear. They’ll give you the silent treatment-great! Let them go. In fact, give them their coat and shoes-smile. You’re on to them and they know it. They just don’t like anyway seeing right through them. (LOL) Always, always, always be on guard. These people are all over the place!

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