I recently ran across this video of Ira Glass talking about the huge gap that exists between your taste in creative endeavors and your ability to create. I’ve always implicitly known this gap existed but this is the first time I’ve heard or seen it vocalized so clearly. I think most creative people struggle with what they see as the inferior things they create and what they know is actually good. Oftentimes, creative people are extremely hard on their work, even though the consumers of their work think it’s very good. This is because of that gap.
Ira suggests that the way to close that gap is just to produce a huge quantity of work, whatever it is that you want to get better at. For writing, this is the spirit behind National Novel Writing Month. The aim there is to just write, quantity over quality and get past the inner critic. It’s a useful exercise even if done in slightly less extremes like writing in a journal for an hour or playing scales for an hour or solving Project Euler problems. Of course, to really improve, it takes not just quantity but also time.
Current evidence says that it takes 10 years of constant practice to truly master anything whether it’s painting, writing, coding software or playing professional golf. It’s something that’s difficult to comprehend especially in the day and age we live in where everything is immediate. But the fact is, if you want to be truly great (or even just better than average), it takes a huge quantity of whatever it is you want to improve in to get the job done and a great deal of time to let it soak in.
I struggle with this gap a lot, both in my daily work and in my writing. I find my internal critic to be quite vocal and my internal creative genius to be shy and reserved. I’ve written about this before, the critic taking hold of both my voice and the publish button, rendering what might be perfectly good content to the dustbin of the drafts folder here at The Experiment. I write a lot that is never going to be published but I’m not sure you improve as fast when you aren’t put content out where people can see it. This is similar to the agile way of writing software, getting it out to the users quickly so that they can tell you where it is right and wrong. Of course, all analogies fall short somewhere and with writing, I would never want my audience to dictate what I produce because if that happens, it’s no longer my voice producing the work. But it’s a useful analogy in that producing a lot of work is the fastest way to improve.
I find that the hardest part of creating is just doing it for extended periods of time amid the thousands of distractions that demand attention all the time. Right now, instead of focusing on this post, I’m also monitoring the Cavs-Magic game, checking my email, listening to music and who knows what else. Doing things for 15 minutes at a time never aids improvement. I find that my attention is constantly fragmented unless I very deliberately and consciously eliminate distractions. When I do this, as I fight through the anxiety of not paying attention to things that don’t matter, I discover that my productivity goes up as well as the quality. The difficulty lies in unplugging for the time necessary to achieve that productivity.
In the end, the only way to quiet the critic is to constantly produce content of a long period of time. Eventually, assuming some level of underlying talent, the gap can be closed or at least narrowed to an acceptable distance.