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Why your work disappoints you

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Just a quick shoutout to a certain demographic. If you create as a habit, hobby or job — writing, visual arts, music, design, whatever — I think this will mean something to you. If you once did but don’t any more then it may be even more relevant.

I don’t remember where I first saw it but it’s been making the rounds in the social media channels:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

-Ira Glass

Your taste is why your work disappoints you.

I guess this is a fact of life for creatives and we ought to be relieved by all it explains. It’s why it can be so hard to put your ass in the chair and make something — it’s painful to make something that doesn’t meet your standards, and those of us who are new to our respective arts don’t often hit the marks we set for ourselves.

It also explains how some really untalented writers and musicians and are more confident and less inhibited about self-promotion than the good ones. Low standards, met easily. If you’re self-conscious about showing your work, good, there’s a reason for that. Bad artists are bad because they don’t know what good looks like. 

It explains why people quit even when at one time they really saw how good they could be.

The taste-ability gap appears to be an immutable law of craft itself, and those that partake will suffer from it in some form almost every time they sit down, at least as long as they’re unaware of it. In hindsight it’s obvious, but it never occured to me until I ran into this quote somewhere a few months ago.

As big a revelation as it was, I forget it all the time. I forget that most of the self-torture and that is known to come with creative work inevitably stems from that gulf between one’s taste and one’s artistic chops, and it has every reason to be there. Regular feelings of “I suck at this” are not a flaw, not a personal tragedy, not a sign of anything except that you know what’s good and what’s not.

So it’s another one of those points of natural friction in human life where our best choice is to defy our natural inclination as a matter of habit, and create even though it hurts or scares us. “When’s the best time to practice?” a student asks the Dalai Lama. “When you don’t feel like it,” he says.

It’s not the most appealing revelation, but it simplifies things to know that bad work is a) normal and b) necessary. The volume of work Glass refers to is not going to change. It just has to be gotten into and gotten through, and most of it won’t be very good. This doesn’t make a natural dovetail with my normal strategy of avoiding everything that makes me feel bad. Not sure how it’s affecting your creative life, but I feel confident that my misery has company.

Hypothetically, then, the healthiest mindset to approach work would be to do two things. One, to welcome bad work when it does come — to love it as we might love rotten children just because they’re our own, and without regard to how others revile them. And two, to sit down and make something more often, because we understand that making well-intentioned trash moves us just as quickly up the mountain as do strokes of brilliance.

Glass’s gap reminds me of an old metaphor about writing. It’s like panning for gold. Just by getting words down, you are panning for gold, and most of it will be sand. But there are gold flecks in there. You can’t help but get better at it, and soon won’t have to go through as much sand. But sand is normal. It shouldn’t worry you, shouldn’t irritate you too much, and definitely should not convince you you’re looking in the wrong place.

Today is Raptitude’s third birthday. I feel like I’ve always done this, writing, but it’s really quite new to me. Still toddler-aged. And that’s a relief.

All I’m trying to say here, to my fellow creatives, is that it will take a while before we’re good enough for ourselves, but we don’t get closer without making more work.

And so sometimes creative pursuits feel lonely. But you’re not alone; we all share it. We all bang our heads on the same wall. Nobody will understand quite why we do it. They won’t be interested in our “sand”, and they probably won’t know sand is a necessary part of the process.

But we should know it.


Photo by PhotonQ

Josh March 15, 2012 at 1:14 am

Happy third birthday Raptitude. Hope to see much more in the future.

Jane March 15, 2012 at 3:55 am

So true. Such a good point to make. It’s taken me over a year to show anyone my blog and even now reading back over the first posts to now I cringe a bit. Not only is it my creative heart on the page but all up I really only write an occasional good sentence. Those sentences make it worthwhile but I wish there were more.

Interestingly I don’t feel the same way about my photography. Probably because once I take a photo I can’t really play with it as I can with words. I can rewrite a million times to try and created something perfect and still not get there. Even today looking at my blog I wanted to rewrite so much of it because of how much I’ve learnt in the last year.

I’ve written my whole life, can’t this mean then, I can start to deliver something better now? Lol. I wish :)

Jeff March 15, 2012 at 8:24 am

Jane I think your blog is beautiful and that you have no reason to be hiding it

Luis Arturo Huerta March 18, 2012 at 11:39 pm

I heard sometime that a writer don’t finish a job. Just leaves it.

Conglaturations David and to us, your readers.

Chris March 15, 2012 at 4:39 am

Happy third birthday!

I have to say thanks for this post, it resonates so true for me at the moment. I’m overwhelmed coping with trying to change my life, create something new in my website, learn to be a single parent and manage my day job. Sometimes it feels like there’s no mental space or time for the creative stuff, the stuff I want to grow. You really do have to fight on through.

Thanks for the timely perspective :) Good luck for many more years of success with your project.

Sally March 15, 2012 at 5:40 am

Can i ask you something? How do you realize the fact that your work can sometimes be complete bullshit ? Is there a way of testing it out.? In my creating writing process, when i get an idea , i percieve it as brilliant but after a year or so , i realize the idea was absolute crap and was just glorified by me. Probably brilliant artists who sometimes produce medicore work have this problem .Just want to know if there is a foolproof way of checking if the current idea i am having is good or not.

David March 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

I notice how shitty my work is when I read really good writing. I read the New Yorker every week now and I am constantly thinking “Wow I can’t even come close to this.”

But I’m not talking about whether ideas are good ideas or not. All of us have good ideas. It takes skill to work that idea into something that other people will get. That “something” is the work, and we need experience at making work in order to make work that is effective.

Jeff March 15, 2012 at 10:49 am

David, I read the New Yorker too. They have some good articles yet some bad one’s

Raptitude.com > TNY

Just sayin’

Leigh March 15, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I think, also, when we read things in places like the New Yorker we automatically think of them as the “standard of good writing.”

If our work is different, it’s very easy to compare and find our own lacking. But it may simply be doing something that the New Yorker doesn’t do.

I like to keep in mind that James Joyce submitted Ulysses to many many publishers before Shakespeare and Co finally published it.

Sameer March 15, 2012 at 5:43 am

Happy third birthday raptitude. By the way , for this special occasion , could u do a special something in this website. Something like FAQ section where you answer some interesting questions or something we can learn more about you. Just an idea though

Karunesh @ chase-a-dream.com March 15, 2012 at 6:08 am

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions” :)

i think working without expecting results is the key to love your work

TrishaMD March 17, 2012 at 11:46 am

I second that! Well put Karunesh.

Alexandru Adrian March 15, 2012 at 6:23 am

Happy birthday Raptitude and many more to come. I have been through this for a while now, at first it felt awful – every “bad” thing that I created came like a dagger to my self esteem, until I realized that I’m actually getting better and better, and every thing I create – good or bad – is helping me grow.

Jess March 15, 2012 at 6:25 am

Wow, I must’ve been reading for a long time then. Time flies when you’re having fun, hey? Happy birthday.

David March 15, 2012 at 10:23 am

Yes you have been here for a long time Jess! My records show you made your first comment when this blog was three months old. I appreciate you longtime readers so much, thank you.

Rebecca March 15, 2012 at 6:28 am

For any creative, to ever become good at it one has to put in the time. It’s not something that can be done occasionally and it’s that simple. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule comes to mind. I live at bookstores and see many times books that are on the best seller list that I think elementary in language and style and shake my head at the low bar we’ve set for ourselves as far as reading good work. That’s when I cringe because I feel I write better than many of the published works I come across. Many tell me, including English professors, that it’s time for me to finish and peddle my WIP. Yet, I am always comparing myself to literary writers and how I come up short in comparison and feel I still need to hone my skill more. I was an English lit major so I know the value of a great piece of work and what that does to you. And until I feel mine can do the same, it’s unlikely I’ll take the next step. I still have not reached my 10,000 hours.

David March 15, 2012 at 10:26 am

Time put in is what it’s really all about I guess. I will say though that the 10,000 hours figure (if you subscribe to it) isn’t the threshold for success, but for mastery. I am nowhere near 10,000 hours of blogging but I am making something of what I am able to do so far.

Kylie March 15, 2012 at 7:13 am

Heartening words. I am getting a little better but still struggle massively to sit down and just do my creative work – my best strategy is to give myself permission to do something really crappy. And it often really is… but sometimes it has a redeeming feature or two, providing a little bolt of almost-fulfillment and the motivation to continue.

And Happy Birthday Raptitude :) I think you are mature beyond your toddler years!

Jennifer March 15, 2012 at 7:37 am

Yes. This really touched a nerve for me. I am taking a sermon writing class at my church and woke with the idea of a sermon on making art as spiritual practice. The practice is more important than the product in terms of our development as artists and as human beings.

GoodGravyBoat March 15, 2012 at 8:05 am

Happy Birthday! And many mooooore!
Great post, blogged about this same topic recently after running across the Ira Glass quote. Keep panning!

Jeff March 15, 2012 at 8:28 am

This is the most logical explanation of “artist frustration” I have come across.

Uncanny how it feels like you just peered into my soul and produced this blog post specifically with me in mind.

Thanks David, this post definitely helps clear the picture…

Minard March 15, 2012 at 9:57 am

Happy happy Birthday raptitude! more powerful years to come!

David March 15, 2012 at 10:08 am

Aw thanks everyone

Nicole B. March 15, 2012 at 10:28 am

happy birthday to you! y muchos maaaaaaaaaaaaaas!!!!!!

Thrixxie March 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

I agree sometimes David that our work disappoints us…But then, always postive thoughts…

Mark March 15, 2012 at 11:02 am

I wrote professionally for 11 years. I was never very good. I was good enough though, and I could move to a book series that was behind deadline and hit the ground running. My editors loved me, until their project was back on schedule anyway.

You are a terrific writer, David. Keep up the good work. You are a terrific thinker, too, and that’s half the reason you are a terrific writer. Keep up the good work, my friend.

Oh, and then there was Samuel Johnson’s opinion: No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

Michael March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Happy third birthday, Raptitude! : ) Your caretaker is doing a terrific job, you’re one lucky blog. Hope you keep going for many more years to come!

Oh, I can relate to The Gap. It’s so in your face that it deserves to be capitalized. I agree it’s a part of the creative process, but it can be quite the destroying one. In the end, it serves to separate those that are brave enough to plough through it, from those that aren’t confident enough and decide to pull out.

I know many people, both in the visual arts and writing scenes, that have given up because the work they create never matches the masterpiece they envisioned. Having experienced this myself, I know how frustrating it is and how easily it is to be let down by it.

But the key is to persevere; even lousy work is useful, and we mustn’t forget it’s still a part of us. Maybe our mood just wasn’t quite “in the zone” that time. It doesn’t matter – that lesser work still represents our state of mind, still represents our ideas, still has a message of its own, in short, it’s still a work of art. It just may not quite be what we were aiming for.

But hey, even with many ridiculous attempts at creating something, I’ve managed to make some pretty good work. I’m sure you will too, and that should make up for all the “failures” of the past.

Gustavo Silva | Frugal Science March 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Feliz aniversario, Raptitud (Spanish version of Raptitude)!

The moment you give yourself permission to suck is the moment you really start to become creative. I have two years sucking and maybe will have to struggle some more. I know that now.

It’s OK to suck! It implies that you let go your illusion of perfection. It means that you are creating something, even if it’s only sand.

bettyrunner March 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Hi David, been a Raptitude fan now for nearly two years, since a friend sent a link to https://www.raptitude.com/2009/03/the-one-ingredient-necessary-for-accepting-yourself/ . That was it – I was hooked and I haven’t looked back.
Love the post today. Happy 3rd Birthday Raptitude and thanks David for sharing your thoughts and wise words with your friends on the net. All good wishes to you and long live Raptitude!

Barbara March 15, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Language is so powerful, as you have already shown us, your readers, over and over again. “I suck at this” is so much more personal and inflammatory than “this piece sucks”. A while back, I tried to pick up drawing – something I was very good at when I was younger- only to find that my hands have lost the “touch”. What I discovered is that I was partially motivated by the desire to be “good” at something, to have something I did be “special” and not just for the sheer joy of play. happy, happy birthday Raptitude. And thank you for joy.

Lori Gosselin March 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Happy 3rd anniversary David! Around here that makes you a senior!
I love this whole article but especially this: “it will take a while before we’re good enough for ourselves” I’ve just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’m guessing you may have read it, or if not, that you would enjoy it very much. In his case he wrote a story a day. Some of us (not me) are writing a post a day! Interesting! I know I’m still (17 months in) finding my voice and my way but I’m loving it. I love this light you shed on my frustration. Thanks for that!

nrhatch March 15, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Happy 3rd! And many more!

I first saw this Ira Glass quote on youtube. Brilliant. Our taste holds us back. Lack of taste propels others forward . . . and explains why so many “no-talents” are surprised when the American Idol judges say, “what the hell was that?” ;)

Jacob Green March 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I have never been in the habit of reading Raptitude on a consistent basis since I first started reading the site. I actually believe that is a good thing though, I come to this site and I read a well written article that is more engaging than the majority of liberal studies classes. These articles give me new out looks on life to look at and examine, and for the most part try to implement them into my life as much as possible. I just wanted to take a minute to thank you David for all the invaluable insight and fuzzy feel good feelings. Happy 3rd!

Leigh March 15, 2012 at 7:44 pm

And yes, Happy birthday! Toddlers rock!

Maryden25 March 15, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Our work can only disappoint us if we are not satisfied with the outcome.
Happy birthday to you! Kudos!

Roberta Romero March 16, 2012 at 2:26 am

Happy Birthday! Look forward to the sand :)

Elizabeth Bell March 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm

My tango teacher is a volatile kind of guy. Someone, no doubt vexed by his frequent and indignant explosions, had made a copy of ‘Do you make a moral issue out of being inconvenienced?’ which I noticed one day whilst preparing to dance.
My curiosity piqued, I am now a delighted reader.
Love your work!
There is something so earnest and willing and humourous about us dwellers of the extended empire, don’t you think?….We have, thankfully, none of the burdens of being British or American…..and that seems to allow us this endearing, self deprecating and ridiculous capacity for introspection.
In between then and now, that is, finding Raptiude and this autumn morning, I have taken to writing. Loving words, writing has long been latent…..but of late, the words that had popped and bubbled from my mouth to amuse me – and sometimes others, have started to make their way on to the page. What a journey! It is yoga….
‘When is the best time to practice? When you don’t feel like it!’
Quite simply, your essay this morning was timely and reassuring. I have set myself a project, or rather, an idea from the universe pressed itself on me, an exciting and important project, and I find the path long and hard. However, this post leaves me feeling most encouraged. So, back to work. Thank you and Happy Birthday! eB

David March 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Hah! That’s awesome. Your instructor’s short fuse brought me a delighted reader. Pleased to have you with us!

The Fuddler March 17, 2012 at 1:22 am

Years ago, I listened to that quasi-legitimate recording of the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany in 1962. If I’d been one of the patrons at that club that evening, I’d have said yeah, these guys are all right, but nothing to write home about.

I could puke thinking of all the years when I could have been writing or making pictures but didn’t because I was so afraid of failing. I’ll never get those years or opportunities back.

It’s a royal bear to get myself to write when the feeling hits, and then the tightness in the pit of my stomach hits back, or to overcome the I’m-not-worthies when I’m considering other kinds of creative projects, but by hook or by crook, I must do it.

Noch Noch | be me. be natural. March 17, 2012 at 2:54 am

very encouraging – i’ve been havign writer’s block, and finally pushing myself to just write something. write and write and write!
Noch Noch

Rick March 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

LOVE this! I’m a photographer, singer, and songwriter. And I have struggled with the “my work sucks” mindset for as long as I’ve been doing these things. And, recently, I’ve realized that while my gifts may not yet be worthy of the Met or Carnegie Hall yet… they are real, and I do good work! Thanks for the great piece!

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Shalani March 18, 2012 at 12:26 am

My work disappoints me when I’m losing my focus, Sometimes there is struggle in my work so I’m disappointed. Thanks for your ideas how can i manage my disappointments.

Tim March 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Hi David:

Congrats on Raptitude’s 3rd birthday! You are a gifted writer and someone who always has an interesting take on things. You’re right, your misery does have company…I’m right there with you. I think a lot of us creatives, whether we’re creative personally, professionally (or both), are trying to figure out what makes us tick. Even if we call ourselves a writer, do we really know our strengths or what we’re better at than any other writers? I know I’m still trying to figure a lot of that out. Thanks for sharing the Ira Glass and to a successful 3+ more years at Raptitude!

Will March 19, 2012 at 8:28 am

David, this was a really thoughtful followup to Glass’s essay. I think, sometimes… we need to remember our work, once we make it public, isn’t just for us. More than once, I’ve had someone compliment my work and I think, “Are you just telling me what you think I want to hear, because it’s clearly crap?” But, maybe it’s just that an outsider isn’t burdened, like we are, of the vision we set out to achieve and failed to reach. They are just seeing the work on it’s own merits. All the more reason not to be afraid to create crap.

Catharine Phillips March 19, 2012 at 8:57 pm

My problem is comparing my art to someone else’s and realizing that their’s is soooo much better. If I hadn’t looked at their’s I would have remained certain that my work is indeed good. The artist in me is forever changing and morphing to fit myown own emotional need. The bottom line is continue to be curious about other’s work and continue to strive to do what satisfies you.

Luna March 20, 2012 at 6:39 am

Disappointment makes you grow a better worker.. Be inspired with it.. Keep posting some more! :)

Brien27 March 20, 2012 at 8:34 am

When my work is not done at exact time i feel disappointed..But disappointments make me realize that i should work hard.

Rylai03 March 20, 2012 at 10:45 am

It’s normal sometimes to have mistakes and get disappointment but always is not good.. You should try to find a job that is more suited to you abilities..

Bob March 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I think most good musicians will go through this and many give up.
I think you have to accept there is good and bad that make it(?)
If you do a lot of work it just gets better and becomes normal (try for the 10,000 hours)

Charmaine March 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

They’ll be happy to tell you if the bond has matured, and how much it is worth today (more than the face value) They give you the money if that’s what you want to do.

Valery March 21, 2012 at 10:32 am

Hello and my sincerest congratulations on Raptitude’s third anniversary!

I sometimes look at my drawings and see some progress. But then I look at some pro’s art and here comes disappointment.

I used to worry a lot till I realized one simple truth. This truth is that I constantly make the stupid mistake of comparing my months of experience with years of experience or experienced artists.

It’s not that another person makes better art because they are better than me as a person. It’s just that I do not have the same level of expertise as they do. And once I level up and gain the necessary skills I will be able to make quite good art.

So for now, I keep the following in my mind (and also written down on a sheet of paper):

1) my drawings match my present skill and knowledge. Tomorrow I will upgrade them and my artwork will be better.
2) my achievements are not my personality, so others are not better than me, they just put in more time.

Reminding yourself that you are a humble newbie brings relief and sparkles curiosity. Being a newbie is fun! :)

Thank you for this inspiring and thoughtful article, David!

Crosby March 21, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Well sometimes, work really disappoints us and even in every way…But we have to be just patient and love our work still…

Robert Danielson March 22, 2012 at 6:51 am

It is natural that people get dissapointed sometimes at your work.
I found some inspiration in your post .
Thanks for sharing.

Daise March 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I too had read this quote recently on a social networking site, and was so glad that I had read it. Now you writing more about it, make the concept really clear for me… Just what I needed today. N happy birthday 2 Raptitude. You have no clue, the kind of differece this blog had made 2 my life.

Nancy37 March 24, 2012 at 3:24 am

Disappointments are tool in making all things worthy and effective, so there’s no reason to feel sad, stand up and learn in every disappointments of life…

nicole March 25, 2012 at 9:18 am

sometimes our expectations is one of our disappointments because sometimes we cant assure if we can get what we really expect to happen or to have.

Michael March 26, 2012 at 1:06 am

I really liked your post! I’ll be pinning it on my pinterest!

Sally Thompson March 26, 2012 at 3:47 am

Every day we make something that others would not like. But this must make us stronger instead of weaning about this.

Thomas March 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Hey David! Do you suffer from writer’s block? If you do , how do you deal with them?

Renea March 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm

This really hits home. My ex husband had left me for another woman. I didn?t know it at the time though so getting over him wasn?t too hard. We also had a daughter together, which made it even harder.

Donnie Todd April 16, 2012 at 2:01 am

I really like this one. I like your take on it. I still have lots to catch up on with your blogs.

Ben Jarvis April 16, 2012 at 6:51 am

I’ve been reading your last 10 or so posts (they’ve been building up in my RSS feeder over the last few months) and I have to say that this one hits home pretty hard. Everything Ira says is also confirmed in Stephen King’s “On Writing” as well as in other creative/self help books like Neil Fiore’s “The Now Habit”. Also the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.

I’m 34 now and I’ve been dabbling in music and audio production since I was 12 or so. Only this year have I begun to set real deadlines and go through the real work of creating and out of that I a podcast (http://www.youtalkloud.com). We’re releasing episode 10 this Friday. I’ve never worked this hard on something, or kept at it this long, but I know I’m on the right track and that’s because I know that it’s all building toward something great. It all adds up. Not giving up and learning from your mistakes (as I guess we all know deep down) pays off.

Thanks for all your hard work, man. Keep it up.

Lindsey Walker July 31, 2012 at 2:58 pm

As an independent musician I loved reading this. I have to admit that I completely agree with everything you said! It is nice to know I am not alone!

malena January 8, 2014 at 7:16 pm

I found this video and I thought “He’s ripping David off!”. Many faceslaps ensued (:

malena January 8, 2014 at 7:17 pm

(This post is awesome, by the way.)

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