the agony of being bad at what you love doing
'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 of 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 out 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. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.' - Ira Glass
I felt that exact feeling for many years. I started blogging at 13, with a laptop that crashed every 15 minutes and a sellotaped together camera. At the time I was at a secondary school where the workload was heavy, so finding time to write was difficult. Most nights I would get home at 4 pm after school, study until 10 pm, then write until the early hours of the morning. Then I would get up at 6 am the next day and take naps during classes to make up for the missed sleep.
I was desperate to be a good writer. Yet I felt that painful disconnect between my taste and my abilities with every word I wrote. I spent every spare moment writing, only to delete most of what I typed and shred endless notebooks. To see the dissonance between my own work and that of people I admire(d) was agonizing.
Writing drove me mad. I got angry at myself. I cried over it. I swore at the words on the page because I could not meet my own standards for the one thing I wanted to be good at. I knew I wanted to be a writer, yet I had this all too common idea that everyone else knew something I did not know.
This is an easy to trap to fall into. Hence, the obsession with the daily routines of successful people: what porridge ate John Keats? The misguided idea is that those who succeed know something you don't. Or the idea that there is a system against you. So we search for the one little hack or trick or tip which will eliminate that gap. Except, those are no substitute for time itself. William Zinsser put it best when he wrote:
'I don't do tips. Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That's part of a larger package- a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego determination, discipline, patience, confidence and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid. '
If only I had read those two quotes when I was a teenager. It could have saved a tremendous amount of self-hatred. I was not a bad writer for my age. I won prizes for my work, I got high grades for it and praise, the reception to my early blog posts was often positive. But it was never enough because nothing anyone said could alleviate how I felt. Part of it came down to the reading I did. I would read the work of people triple my age, with qualifications, experience, and resources and ask: why am I so shit compared to them?
The myth of the child prodigy is a dangerous one. True prodigies are rare, and long-term studies have shown that most do not go on to do great things. As a 13-year old blogger, I was often featured on 'ones to watch!' lists and I worried my improvement would stall. Those lists are problematic because they devalue what someone is currently doing and focus on nebulous future achievements.
Somehow, I kept going. Through all the burning of journals, the anger, the classes I slept through, I kept writing.
That line from Ira Glass exemplifies everything I felt and so many others do too.
We grow up looking at the work of established people and come to see them as a yardstick to compare ourselves to. We develop an image of the ideal vision of what we want to create.
Then we reach the point of actually putting out our own work into the world. Everything is suddenly different. People are indifferent or critical. The imagined instant ascent to stardom does not occur. We hold our work up against that of our heroes and it falls short. Very, very short. The self-doubt emerges as we question if we are cut out for this. Most people give up at this point, a few continue.
Over time, with deliberate practice, that gap shrinks as we approach the 10,000 hours mark. One of the underrated aspects of practice is that quantity leads to quality. My writing only began to improve when I started to set myself strict output goals. The focus on quality is often misguided because it is what comes after (not before) quantity.
When I am discouraged, I picture myself as within a training montage. I imagine a sped up version of the countless hours I spend writing. There is no end point, of course. It is a lifetime project.
I am only at the beginning of this process of mastering writing. It has only been a short time since I mentally committed to this as my career. It will be a while before I get anywhere near where I want to be. Still, I am reaching a point where I can sometimes be proud, not ashamed of my work.
The nice thing about the internet is that we get infinite chances to improve our work. We get endless feedback, exposure, and opportunities.
No matter what we create (or dream of creating), we get a lifetime to get good at it. No matter how painful that initial disconnect is, we get to keep pushing - be it as a job, side project or hobby.
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