Closing the Creative Gap
How to become great at what you’re passionate about
Defining the Gap:
Everyone that does creative work goes through a period where the work they make is not as good as what’s in their head. In other words, what they’re making does’t match up with the expectations they have of themselves. The creative gap is the space between where you are and where you want to be. Ira Glass, host of the American Life, explains it best, you start out with great taste, but not the skills to translate your taste into great art, writing, or whatever your medium is.
Check out this quick, 2 minute video by Ira Glass, he explains the gap way better than I can.
Facing the Gap
How bad do you want it?
The first thing we have to learn, and which will actually help us, is that closing the gap is very hard. It’s supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to make you want to quit. And most people do quit before they ever close it. Use the fact that it’s hard as motivation. Everyone you look up to closed that gap, went through that journey, and so can you. Ask yourself, how will my life be different if I close the gap? What type of work will I make? Do I actually want it? Do I care about it enough to go through that journey?
Closing the gap is difficult, but success leaves clues, and there is a blueprint out there that shows us how to do it.
Strategy to close the gap:
Being bad at something is the first step to being good at something. The best way to close the gap is through daily practice. But all practice is not created equal, there’s good ways and bad ways of practicing. It’s the same as walking into the gym and getting on the first machine that seems interesting, or walking in with a specific plan. You have to focus your practice in specific areas and with a specific purpose.
The first step is to deconstruct what the best people in your field are doing, whether they’re a writer, photographer, musician, painter, etc. What is it that makes their work great? What patterns do you see in their work? What qualities do they have that makes them and their work stand out from everyone else? Pick one of your favorite artists, go through all of their work, deconstruct each individually, and then try to see what common threads run across all of them. Repeat this step over and over.
The second step is to imitate the work you deconstructed in step one. Try to recreate your favorite works of art, whether it’s a painting, a song, a short story, photograph, etc. This will push you out of your comfort and force you to sink or swim. If all you create are things within your comfort zone and skill level, you won’t improve. By trying to imitate great works of art, you will learn at a much faster pace. This leads us to step 3, failing.
Failing is the most important element in learning something new. If you’re not constantly failing then you’re doing work that’s too easy for you. You know you’re on the right track if you are failing, because it usually means you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. A successful person “succeeds” more than the average person, but he also fails more than the average person. Any NYT Bestselling author has thrown away more bad pages than the average writer has ever written, good or bad. Michael Jordan scored more baskets than anyone in history, but he also missed more than all but a few players. But failure is only helpful if we learn from it, otherwise we are just banging our heads against the wall.
The fourth step is turning failure into feedback. Feedback is the fuel you need to constantly improve your craft. The more feedback you get about your work, the quicker you will improve. Think of creativity like a sword, and the more feedback you get, the sharper it gets. As it gets sharper, you can cut things you could’t before, and you see more possibilities. That’s why you should always be looking for opportunities to get feedback, which means opportunities to fail. If there is no chance of failure, there’s also no chance of feedback, which means limited opportunities to learn.
Failure leads to feedback and feedback leads to success. The quicker you fail, the quicker you learn.
So how do we put those steps into action? Deadlines. Creativity is like a muscle, you have to exercise it if you want to get stronger. You have to exercise your creativity as much as you can, everyday if possible.
You need deadlines to protect you from yourself. You can’t practice only when you’re feeling inspired, or are “feeling” it. You need deadlines to force you to practice, fail, and then turn those failures into feedback. Instinctively, your brain wants to avoid failure to protect you, but in this case avoiding failure is actually hurting you. A deadline creates pressure, and sometimes a little bit of pressure is all you need to get started. Neil Gaiman says it best, “you have to start and you have to finish things, that’s how you learn.” Focus on the process, the results don’t matter right now. Deadlines are important because they close the feedback loop. If you start something and quit halfway through, you won’t get the feedback you need. By starting and finishing things, you open and close feedback loops. Each time you close a feedback loop, you improve, you get better. That’s why kids learn so fast, they are constantly opening and closing feedbacks loops.
This is a short clip (less than 5 minutes) of Neil Gaiman talking about creativity and the key to making great work. You won’t regret listening to it, it’s life changing and inspiring.
If you create work on a consistent basis, and fail, and get feedback from that failure, one day you will make something and it will be great. You won’t know exactly when it’s happening, but at some point, creating daily will translate into great work. There will never be a time when you say, ok, I’m ready to start doing great work. The great work will happen on a day that feels just like any other. You will start a project, and you will finish it, just like you’ve been doing, except on one of those occasions, you will realize you made something great.
“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for you being here. Make good art.” — Neil Gaiman