It’s Okay, You Didn’t Get Worse

If you want to truly know a foreign culture, you have to go and live there. You have to learn via osmosis. It’s the only way. Everything in life is completely different when experienced from the inside looking out, as opposed to the outside looking in. It’s not even that your assumptions are a little bit off when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s more that you have absolutely no idea what to even have assumptions about.

This is true about everything. One example I’ve found is the difference between what I thought it’d be like to try to write a blog post every day for a year, and what – after over 200 posts – it actually has been like. I thought that I would grow in confidence as a writer, and that with each passing post le mot juste would fall from my fingers to the keys.

In fact, the exact opposite feeling happened! I constantly feel like I’ve gotten worse as a writer as I’ve gone on! Now, I’m not saying this to garner sympathetic emails, or to be wacky, or controversial – I know it isn’t true. Even if I’m not a great deal better, I know there’s no way on Earth I can actually be worse than when I started in October. But it is how I feel a lot of the time.

So what’s going on here? Well, it meshes very nicely with something I read about recently. I’ve put the entire quote at the end of this piece, but just for now, I’ll summarise by giving my theory on what’s happening.

When you’re doing something inconsistently or very rarely at all, but instead spending a lot of time thinking about the kinds of things you would or should be doing, the only limit is your imagination. You can imagine that – if you actually were to sit down and do the work – that the work would be as good as Hemingway, or Tesla, or Marilyn Manson, or whoever your heroes are…

And then when you actually do some work, you’re rudely confronted by the harsh truth that – AS OF YET – you’re not quite at their level yet. Because really… how could you be? But it’s this enormous chasm between what you imagine yourself ultimately capable of and what you are currently capable of that is so hard to stomach.

I didn’t get worse. I just wrote and published more frequently than at any other time in my life, and as such I have nowhere to hide. I have no fictional and purely imaginary works of genius to lift my spirits, only the real and very flawed pieces I have actually produced, which inevitably fall short of my incredibly grandiose and unrealistic standards. Instead of playing the game in my head, I’ve been playing it for real. Warts and all.

And as you’ll see below, that’s the only solution. If you want to be good, you have to put up with being bad for a bit. Except that’s unnecessarily harsh. It’s not “bad.” It’s “embryonic.” You don’t slag off a baby because it can’t walk yet. So don’t slag off yourself because you’re not producing works of genius every day.

Each time you sit down to try, you can’t help but get a little bit better. And that’s all it takes.

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste 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, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that 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 they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

Ira Glass on the Brainpickings website

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