Writer Paulo Coelho once said, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” In my short lifetime, I’ve learned that one of life’s biggest deterrents is fear. This is especially true when it comes to any creative endeavor. We’re afraid of failing. Of producing something terrible. Of being laughed out the door.
For most of us, this fear is crippling. It prevents us from pursuing the very thing we long to do.
That’s why Ira Glass’ (the host of NPR’s incredible show This American Life) meditation on the gap between taste and talent is so utterly refreshing.
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 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. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It’s 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 awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
When I heard this quote for the first time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Glass put words to something I’ve often felt but never expressed: my ability falls woefully short of my ambitions. I’m sure you’ve felt it too. In my case, it occurs within the context of writing. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, McCarthy, O’Connor, Tolkien, Lewis—these authors’ writings have ignited my imagination, stirred my soul, and moved me to tears. And yet, I am crushed by “the gap” between my work and theirs. Some days, their work looms so tall in my mind I feel unworthy to even pick up a pencil.
But what Glass so brilliantly reminds us is that virtually every artist has humble beginnings. With very few exceptions, most people are terrible when they first learn their craft. No one picks up a guitar for the first time and shreds “Stairway to Heaven.” The same is true elsewhere—most enduring works are the result of long, hard years of painstaking practice and honing.
Take John Steinbeck, for example. Steinbeck, considered one of the greatest American writers of all time, wrote over 30 books in his lifetime. For starters, most of them you’ve probably never heard of (which is slightly encouraging in and of itself).
His first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929. East of Eden, considered by many (including Steinbeck himself) to be his magnum opus, was published in 1952—33 years into his career as a professional writer. Even more astonishing is what Steinbeck, who was 50 at the time East of Eden was published, had to say about it:
“I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
Friends, there is simply no shortcut to excellent work. And to some degree, there will always be a gap between our ambition and our ability—especially in the beginning. So here’s what I’m proposing. What if, instead of fearing failure and avoiding it at all cost, we expected to fail? And not just fail, but fail miserably, and for a long time? What if we knew that failure was the price of admission for great work, and everyone has to pay it?
It still doesn’t totally take away the sting of the gap. Knowing that your work doesn’t come close to your ambitions is hard. But like Glass said: a) that’s normal b) everyone goes through it and c) the only way to close the gap is to do a lot of work.
Isn’t that a freeing thought? If so, then let’s get to work.