Sucking at Stuff

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Being bad at things is painful. My fragile ego and I do not enjoy it. Unfortunately, lots of very wise people (and a very wise cartoon dog) have agreed:

It’s sort of obviously true, isn’t it? In order to become good at something requires practice, and practice necessarily involves messing things up.

The Taste Gap

Ira Glass had an excellent discussion about what has since been termed the Taste Gap and converted into all sorts of inspirational blog posts, videos, sketchnotes, etc.

The basics:

  • When people want to create in a medium, it’s because they enjoy that medium.
  • Enjoying a medium usually means you have strong taste for what is good and what isn’t.
  • Beginning a new creative pursuit, your own work will not meet your taste.

From there, Glass arrives at the same wisdom as Jake the Dog. You have to make a lot of sucky stuff before you can start making ‘sort of good’ stuff, and so on. Glass says that all the successful creative people he knows went through a period (of years) of creating things that weren’t very good. Glass continues to say that the only way to deal with this problem is to work through it, to keep creating until you close the Taste Gap.

Shouldn’t that be easy? “Just keep doing the thing you love, even if your output doesn’t meet your own standards. Just keep doing it.” The answer of course is: NO. No that’s not easy, that sucks! I suck!

Jonny Sun had his own great take on this in his book:

Technique

I did want to take this opportunity to save an excellent quote from one of my professors

“Technique is the translation of the theoretical into the real”

Which is to say, your skills and abilities in a particular craft make it possible to turn the things you’re picturing in your head into an artistic product that exists in the real world. As a novice practitioner of an art form, your ability to visualize a project will always be stronger than your technique, thus creating a Taste Gap.

Guilt

I was listening to an episode of Reply All where host Emmanuel Dzotsi had some really insightful comments about the awkwardness of white people when the topic of racism/social justice comes up.

“I actually think it’s a good thing for white people to sit with their guilt. Guilt is something you feel when you realize there’s a gap between how you’re actually behaving and how you ought to be.”

There’s a clear connection here in the language of a ‘gap’, even though being anti-racist and being good at making radio are pretty different. In either case, though, we experience a lot of negative emotion due to gaps in our expectations and the reality. When we expect to be good, anti-racist people and we aren’t, we feel guilt. When we expect to make an awesome piece of art and we don’t, we feel… embarrassment? Shame?

Either way, the gut reaction to both bad feelings is to shy away from things that will make us feel that way. If we’re going to become better people on a human front, or better practitioners on a skill front, the only way is to work through the negative feelings, process them, and let them fuel our improvement.

Gifted Kids

Roughly once a month, Twitter creates a tweet that looks something like this:

The discourse, as it’s prone to do on Twitter, devolves pretty quickly. I’m not going to opine on gifted programs in general, but the tweet hits on something that I’ve seen (and felt) plenty of: if your early creative, academic, or cognitive life was marked mostly by success, encountering consistent failures later is hugely demoralizing. This comports with the parenting discourse in recent years about how praising children for effort, rather than achievement, yields more persistent and resilient people.

If it’s too late to change how you were raised, though, this process is a lot of unlearning. Figuring out how to enjoy things that you aren’t good at (yet) is the only way to try anything new, to stick to the stuff you care about, or eventually become a master of a craft. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but it seemed like a lot of these threads connect, so I wanted to leave this post here as a reminder for myself:

If this post sucks, maybe you should check back in a few years.


Sucking at stuff is not quite a lesson in the School of Hard Knocks since your main obstacle is your own judgment, not any external harm.

James clear has an excellent blog post about Ira Glass and the taste gap.

Baron Schwartz has an excellent blog post about how doing things badly is not just good for development, but also for present happiness.

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