How To Upgrade Your Creative Life
I recently stumbled upon a quote by Ira Glass — the famous producer and host of This American Life. It changed my life, and it changed the way I view creative work.
The quote is pretty famous among creative types. So famous, that Ira fears “it might be more famous than the [This American Life] show.”
Here it is:
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 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.
The best way to consume this quote is to watch this kinetic typography video. Then watch it again. And again. I watched it five times only this morning.
But what is Ira saying here? Let’s break it down.
1. As a creative, the only thing you’ve got is your TASTE
I’ve always wondered, what’s the difference between Picasso and someone working on a reproduction factory in China, repainting Picasso for $50 apiece. You know there is a difference, but what is it about?
The painter in China has skill. But so does Picasso. When does skill turn into art?
“The reproduction painter in China didn’t come up with the original idea,” you might say. You’re right.
But it’s more than just about the idea, it’s about taste.
Taste is not something you build, ‘hustle for’, or work on. It’s just there. Picasso, Van Gogh, Paul McCartney and you — all have unique tastes. If you like listening to jazz, you’re probably the only person who likes those particular bands, or that particular song.
Taste is simply what you like. Chances are, you’ll be creating what you like to consume (e.g., I create blogs and non-fiction, and I always loved reading blogs and non-fiction) — hence, you can find your taste in what you like to read, watch or listen. When you become an artist, you start creating what you’ve always liked to consume.
But when you’re just starting, you probably don’t have the skill. You’re just not good enough. Taste is the only thing you’ve got.
2. Art is following your taste
Picasso had his particular taste, which led him to create his paintings. The reproduction painter in China probably has taste, too — but instead of following it, he is reproducing somebody else’s.
The only way to create art is to follow your personal taste — no matter how weird, wacky, or unorthodox it might be.
Art is nothing more than a representation of your taste. The more ‘you’ there is in your art, the more of your taste you reflect — the better your art will be.
3. Your taste will let you know that you suck
I currently live in London, and every day I am reminded to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform on the Tube.
An artist though doesn’t need to go underground to be reminded of the existing gap. She has her taste for that.
“But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer”, says Ira, “And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
A gap emerges: between your taste — which is unique, good and initially got you in the game of creating art) — and your skill, which is not that good, yet.
And that’s where most people quit.
4. What great art is
Remember this formula: Great art = combination of your true taste + skill.
You become an artist by being yourself as much as you can, and by committing to building your skill.
If you have the skill, but don’t have the taste — you become a reproduction painter in China.
If you have taste, but don’t have the skill — you become a literary critic.
You need both to create good art.
5. What you can do when you’re just starting out
At least I can tell you what I am doing after absorbing and reflecting on Ira’s quote. I am creating as much as I can and following my unique taste.
And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Neil Gaiman gave similar advice to aspiring writers, “If you’re just starting as a creative, assume you’ve got one million rubbish words inside of you — get them all out.”
Because your taste is unique, some people will think it’s weird. That’s fine. Your job as an artist is not to be understood by everybody. It’s to be loved by people who “get” you and understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
Follow your taste vehemently, passionately, forcefully. Never compromise it. All the best artists followed their innate curiosity and let it lead them. The best example of that is Paul McCartney, and look where it got him.
But you also need skill — and you build it by creating and by doing a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline. Ship. Get your work out there — publish your post on Medium, submit your book on Amazon, upload your video to YouTube. Create regularly, create as much as you can.
The author and Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki recalled that when he was young, he was a terrible presenter. Today though, he is one of the best. Which leads us to the final point.
6. It’s going to take time
Like that song which you can’t stop singing, “It’s going to take time…, it’s going to take patience and time,” building your skill to the level of your taste will take a long time, possibly, your whole life.
It took Steven Pressfield decades before his work finally took off. Tim Ferriss and J.K. Rowling both went through rejection after rejection, before their work sparked even a tiny interest in the publisher.
Get comfortable with that. Be fine with having rejections and creating bad work. Know that it’s temporary.
For Ira Glass, it “took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone else.”
He reminds us that all we’ve got to do is “fight your way through.”
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