The "If Only'' Trap: How to Avoid the Happiness Mirage in Your Creative Career

We all have dreams about how our careers and lives could be better.

The "If Only'' Trap: How to Avoid the Happiness Mirage in Your Creative Career
Photo by Kylie De Guia on Unsplash

We all have dreams about how our careers and lives could be better.

If only I could move to a new city, land that big client, or get promoted, then I'd really be happy.

For creatives, the quest for happiness often focuses on external circumstances—if only I could work at a cooler studio, have more Instagram followers, or design for a hot new brand.

This type of thinking is what I call the "if only" trap. It's easy to fall into it, especially in creative careers where we're constantly inspired by the carefully curated lives of others on social media.

The problem is that basing your happiness on idealised circumstances or external validation is often a mirage. As soon as you attain what you thought would make you happy, the next "if only" appears just out of reach.

In this post, I want to explore the allure and pitfalls of the "if only" mentality for creatives. This trap can leave you stuck in a cycle of comparing yourself to others and constantly looking to the next career milestone for satisfaction.

Instead, we need to learn how to find purpose, meaning, and happiness in our current work and lives. By avoiding the siren call of "if only," we can take practical steps to improve our careers and cultivate more sustainable contentment from within.

The Pitfalls of "If Only" Thinking

The biggest issue with the "if only" mentality is that basing your happiness on external circumstances or validation quickly fades.

That rush of excitement when you finally land a new big client or move to your dream city eventually becomes the normal backdrop of your daily life. The happiness high is temporary.

Lasting Contentment Comes From Within

Achieving lasting contentment is not about any single accomplishment, change of job title, move to a new location, or accumulation of external markers.

There will always be something else hovering just out of reach that starts looking attractive again, whether it's a promotion, higher pay, or trendier clients. You get stuck in an endless cycle of striving for the next thing while failing to appreciate or capitalise on the opportunities directly around you in the present.

Stunted Growth Through Comparison

Rather than celebrating and building upon what you've already accomplished and the skills you've developed, you stay focused only on what is still missing, comparing your situation to others rather than making the most of your gifts.

The nonstop comparison game on social media only exacerbates this mentality, creating the illusion that more followers, fame, and fortune are the true measures of success and keys to satisfaction.

But the truth is, basing your self-worth and happiness on external validation often leaves you chronically dissatisfied, anxious, and searching for more.

You default to believing, "If only I could attain X, then I'd be happy." Yet contentment remains elusive.

Signs You've Fallen Into the Trap

As a creative professional, how can you tell if you've fallen into the "if only" trap?

Watch for these common signs:

  • You constantly compare your portfolio, client list, and career accomplishments to those of other designers, especially Instagram influencers. Instead of feeling motivated, you often feel inadequate.
  • You're always looking ahead to your next promotion, new job title, or career milestone while failing to appreciate your current skills and projects.
  • You feel stuck in your creative role but blame external factors like difficult clients or industry trends rather than looking inward at how you could challenge yourself more.
  • You base your self-worth too much on superficial validation like social media engagement instead of the inherent satisfaction from doing great design work.
  • You think a circumstance like working for a trendy agency or living in a creative hub city is all that stands between you and happiness.
  • You focus on what your work and career lack rather than consciously acknowledging the positives in your current situation.

Becoming aware of these tendencies is the first step to shifting your mindset and breaking free of the "if only" trap. You have the power to stop chasing external validation and comparison. Instead, find purpose and appreciation in your craft.

Escaping the Trap Through Inner Focus

The remedy to the "if only" trap lies in redirecting your focus from external to internal sources of contentment.

Here's how:

  • Define Success on Your Terms: Rather than endless competition and comparison to others, thoughtfully define what success and satisfaction mean for you personally, not what society dictates. What are your core values? How do you wish to invest your time and energy? Reflect deeply.
  • Find Joy in the Process: Focus on finding fulfilment in your day-to-day creative process rather than fixating on end goals and external validation. Enjoy the journey.
  • Value the Present: Learn to genuinely appreciate the positive aspects of your current situation, whether it’s great colleagues, creative freedom, or low-stress flexibility. Every role and company has advantages.
  • Seek Intrinsic Motivation: Discover and increase the sense of meaning, impact, and purpose you derive from the nitty-gritty of your work rather than looking only to external rewards like fame or money for motivation.
  • Nurture Your Creativity Daily: Make time for creative play and experimentation outside of client work. Explore new mediums, techniques, and subjects that excite you. Don't lose your sense of childlike wonder.
  • Curate an Empowering Community: Surround yourself with friends, mentors, and collaborators who celebrate your innate talents and abilities as they exist today rather than telling you your worth is defined by future potential and hypothetical achievements.

With this inward focus and wisdom, you can gradually release the gravitational pull of the happiness mirage. Stay present, foster gratitude for the journey, and know your intrinsic value as you boldly design your most fulfilling life.

Taking Incremental Action to Progress Your Career

Once you've done the inner work to shift your mindset away from the "if only" trap, there are many positive proactive steps you can take to continue advancing your career even within the context of your current role:

Leverage Existing Opportunities

  • Have candid conversations with clients about expanding your role and responsibilities on projects. Discuss opportunities to showcase a broader range of your skills and talents beyond the initial scope. Ask directly if they have additional needs you could support.
  • Research in-demand skills in your speciality and look for opportunities to develop them. Staying on the cutting edge of the latest technologies and techniques makes you more valuable.
  • Reach out to former clients you enjoyed working with to inquire about any new projects coming down the pipeline where they could use your services. Offer to provide recommendations for other good-fit freelancers as well, to demonstrate your industry connections.

Create Your Own Growth

  • Set your own incremental creative challenges, like learning a new design skill online, volunteering to lead a passion project, or job shadowing other departments. Stay engaged by expanding your knowledge.
  • Intentionally reframe your existing job in a more positive light, looking for previously overlooked meaning and impact. How does it connect more deeply to your values?
  • Build relationships and an empowering community with peers who are also trying to grow. Share learnings, have lunch, and be mutually supportive sounding boards.
  • Independently develop, pitch, and execute a passion project concept that helps you exercise underutilised talents. Make your mark.
  • Rather than passively waiting for someone else to magically change your circumstances, boldly take control with the tools already at your disposal. Commit to consistent, small steps that will compound.

With strategic initiative and patience, you can cultivate the career of your dreams right where you are today. The journey is equally as significant as the final destination.

Looking Beyond Work for Satisfaction

While having a successful and satisfying career is an admirable goal, it's important not to fall into the trap of tying all of your happiness and self-worth to achievements at work.

This "if only" mentality can lead to constant striving and prevent you from enjoying all the good things already present in your life now.

To cultivate sustainable happiness beyond just work accomplishments, be intentional about nurturing passions and relationships outside the office. Identify hobbies and activities such as art, music, sports, volunteering, or community service that spark joy and tap into your creativity.

Set healthy boundaries with your job to make time for family, close friendships, fun new experiences, and simple pleasures. Read books unrelated to work, take classes to learn new skills, or travel to new places to feed your curiosity and grow as a person beyond just your job description.

Seek out communities of like-minded people who share interests beyond work and business. Remember, the carefully curated glimpses of people's lives shown on social media do not represent the full, complex story.

Get very clear on your personal values, passions, and what truly matters most in life beyond status and career achievements. Your job is just one aspect of living a happy, purpose-driven, and well-balanced life.

There are so many ways you can find meaning, make a difference, and thrive every day, at work and beyond. Discover what makes you come alive, both on and off the clock.

By cultivating happiness and satisfaction across all areas of life, you'll be able to approach work from a healthier emotional state and with more joy and perspective. Your career does not have to define your entire self-worth or identity. Keep sight of the big picture: you are so much more than your job title.

Getting Unstuck

Feeling stuck and unfulfilled in your career?

Here are some tips for getting unstuck:

  • Reflect on your goals and identify any fears, limiting beliefs, or other obstacles holding you back from progress. Perfectionism, poor time management, or a lack of confidence are common creative blocks.
  • Once you know the hurdles, brainstorm potential solutions. Could better planning, delegating tasks, or setting boundaries help? Does learning a new skill re-energise you? Seek trusted mentor feedback.

Create a step-by-step plan to get unstuck. Break free of self-imposed ruts by gaining clarity on where you want to go and what’s in the way. Momentum builds through small wins.

Living in the Present

It's easy to get caught up in chasing external validation and comparing yourself to others. But the most productive creatives know how to be fully present and engaged in their own path.

Here are some tips for living in the now:

  • Actively listen to clients and colleagues without multitasking. Be fully attentive in conversations to build stronger relationships.
  • When working on a project, mute notifications and focus solely on the task at hand. Avoid distractions that pull you out of the flow state.
  • Spend time outdoors, disconnected from technology. Let your mind wander freely without input.
  • Keep a notebook to jot down creative ideas and observations from daily life. Find inspiration in small moments.
  • Rather than passively consuming social media, create and share your own content. Don't just watch others.
  • Reflect on what makes your skills, style, and perspective unique. Own your original point of view.

Staying grounded in the present moment and on your own path allows you to keep evolving as a creative without losing your sense of self. Tune out comparisons and focus on your gifts.


The allure of "if only" thinking is strong, but resisting it is crucial to finding true satisfaction in your creative career. Happiness is not contingent upon any single accomplishment, job title, or milestone. It comes from within.

By avoiding comparisons, staying present, and finding meaning in your day-to-day work, you can break free of the "if only" mirage. Reflect on your values and define success for yourself, not society. Appreciate the now and take small steps to progress.

You have the power to stop chasing validation and external markers. Instead, nurture your craft and passions. Build a career and life aligned with your purpose. Escape the trap of striving for more and find contentment where you stand today.

With an inner sense of well-being, your creative gifts can shine. Even if the road ahead appears hazy, trust the journey.

You already possess what you need within.