I’ve been showing the same video in my college study skills classes for almost five years now.
Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s a two-minute audio excerpt of a TV interview with Ira Glass, creator of This American Life. Glass gives the best description of the creative experience I’ve ever found.
Here’s the video (and a lightly-edited transcript).
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there’s a gap. For the first couple years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good—but it’s not. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit. Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what there were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be, they knew it fell short. It didn’t have that special thing we want it to have.
Everybody goes through that. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its totally 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. Because it’s only by going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you’ve just gotta fight your way through that.
— Ira Glass
Call it the Gap: the distance between our taste and our abilities.
College students know the Gap well. As a writer, I peer across the Gap daily. A friend of mine is doing something that many talk about but few actually do: starting piano lessons as an adult. She’ll face the Gap.
The Gap may seem like bad news. “You mean I’m going to be bad at this for a long time?”
But the Gap is more good news than bad:
- It is normal to be disappointed in your work at first.
- If you persevere, you will get better.
- If you persevere long enough, you will get great.
There is no other route to mastery, so we might as well embrace the Gap.