"It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
For the past week, I've been browsing through a lot of my old short stories from 2007, some of which were the basis for my current novel series. The best way I can describe the comparison is that it was like watching a 1966 TV episode of Batman after transitioning the setting and characters with the novels into something more realistic like Batman Begins or The Dark Knight. The sense of improvement felt good (so did laughing at myself once I got past cringing a little...), but it was also a motivator to continue challenging myself. No matter how many books I write, I hope I never feel settled. I think that's a dangerous place to be in any profession.
I wish I could remember the book where I first read this--the thought isn't original to me--but authors have a lot in common with magicians. We put in a lot of behind-the-scenes effort with the goal of a smooth and entertaining experience for readers. If you've ever attempted to perform a magic trick right after you've learned its technical secret, it still doesn't come off as well as someone who's been practicing for years. I think what trips a lot of writers up (it held me back for awhile) is that we want to immediately be as great as someone with much more experience--and the majority of the time it just doesn't work that way. We've been conditioned to believe that mistakes are embarrassing and to be avoided--even at the cost of the experience we can gain by at least trying. In many cases, just putting my work out there and being willing to be corrected taught me writing concepts I wouldn't have learned otherwise. The same idea has applied in other areas of my life.
Something that also helped me was taking my focus off of comparing myself to other writers--there's really no point to it because of all the factors that can't be controlled. Instead, over time my whole thought process shifted to, "How can I be better today than I was yesterday?" It's a deceptively simple concept, but it's valuable during the times when discouragements and setbacks hit. Any progress you make--no matter how insignificant it may seem at first--can build and compound over time.
It's important to realize that your novel or series isn't going to grow past the limits you place on yourself. I try to think big enough for it to make me uncomfortable (in a good way) because it makes me want to be better prepared and put more effort into my work--and then amazingly my results improve.
I'm looking forward to many more years of growing along side my series, and I hope this has sparked some ideas that you can apply to your own projects.