Years ago, I found an old set of videos of Ira Glass (of NPR, This American Life, etc.) talking about creativity and storytelling. I’ve come back to these videos regularly over the years. The video quality is horrible but they contain a timeless wisdom about what is worth fighting for and how hard it actually is to produce something good.
Enjoy the killing
At one point, Ira talks about the work and time he and his team invest in searching for good stories. And not just good stories, but good stories told well.
Between a half and a third of everything that we try, we’ll go out, we’ll get the tape and then we kill it.
Between a half and a third! That is a lot of initial phone calls, a lot of research, a lot of prep, a lot of travel, and a lot of interviewing. All to end up in the trash. Glass goes on to say,
And you should think of it the same way. You know, you thought it was going to be good. You went out, you did the interview, the person wasn’t such a great talker, they weren’t so funny, they weren’t so emotional, somehow when they told it to you in person with the camera it wasn’t the way they told you…on the phone beforehand. Just something in the chemistry was wrong. You can’t even name what it is and why would you even bother to try?
I’d venture to guess that we’ve all felt this disappointment. You’re so excited about a project but when you get into it something just feels flat, feels off.
It’s time, at that point, to be the ambitious, super-achieving person who you’re going to be and kill it. It’s time to kill, and it’s time to enjoy the killing because by killing you will make something else even better live. And I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.
Creating something beautiful, or something emotionally touching, or even something just pleasant to look at is hard work. It’s damn hard work. And the simple act of creation is such a process of trial and error and feeling that it almost guarantees you are going to produce lots of garbage in the process.
Dealing with the grief
In part 3 Glass goes on to talk about how most creatives produce utter crap for years at the beginning of their careers. The way he puts it, “your taste is killer” but your execution just can’t keep up. He play an absolutely terrible, and comical, tape of himself years before and makes the point that this tape was made after he’d been working in broadcast for eight years! Eight fucking years!
This highlights a fact about personal/professional growth that I think is glossed over too often. It takes time, and a lot of it, to get good at anything. You have to first progress through the stage where you are just mimicking those around and ahead of you. Then you start to produce on your own and–if you’re lucky enough to have good taste and not delude yourself–you recognize that what you’re creating is garbage or close to it. But you continue to produce and ship work that slowly (ever so slowly) gets better and begins to show that you have something interesting and unique to say.
But through all these steps, vicious editing is key. Without recognizing and culling the crap you do nothing but slow the process down and deceive yourself into thinking that what you are creating is good, even if it’s not a fraction as good as it could be.
Moving on, faster
I think most of us want to create compelling and purposeful work. But most of what we create is garbage. The only way we can begin to understand what compelling and purposeful really mean is to listen and participate in the conversation.
We’re living through a huge paradigm shift in the way humans communicate. Up until the early 20th century humans could only communicate with as many people as we were able to physically gather around us. The advent of the radio and TV enabled us to broadcast our messages to every set of ears or eyes on the planet. And the internet has again revolutionized everything about how we communicate with each other. We’ve shifted away from one-way dissemination of information from the few to the many towards an open conversation model. The internet has empowered everyone to create and broadcast their own stories. And it has allowed us to be more selective about the information that we choose to give our attention to.
Whatever it is that you create; whether it’s photos, or video, or audio, or paintings, or web sites, you will hone your own taste and your own skills faster if you’re actively participating in the conversation instead of simply jettisoning your work into the world. Your work is not unassailable. But that doesn’t mean you need to listen to the trolls either.
Find people you trust, whose taste is better than yours, and make yourself accountable to them. Give yourself deadlines. Ask for feedback and participate in the discussion. Much of what is said should be discarded, much like your own work. But every now and then you’ll be presented with a true gift. Some bit of feedback or insight that catapults you to a new level.
Above all else, keep shipping and trust the process.