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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

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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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