Effort leads to creative proof

I ran across this video yesterday, and it’s actually an edited version of one that I first saw of Ira Glass in 2009 about people who do creative work. The original1 is a good one to watch too, but this version gives you the gist of it, and it’s nicely executed.

Ira Glass’ ability to tell a story is arguably unmatched in the world of radio, and as an avid listener to his show2 for the past 10 years, I’d say my loyalty is some proof of that. He and the producers that work with him always seem to find the most interesting and unabashedly human stories to share. Sometimes they’re hard to listen to, and sometimes they’re funny as hell, but the consistent thread is that it’s all very raw and truthful. So I keep coming back for more. Since Ira is insanely good at his craft, this interview he gave is all the more interesting. He was mediocre at some point? Really? It takes work – a lot of work – to be good. It takes even more work to be great.

I think when I saw this interview the first time, I was in one of the phases that he is referring to when “what you’re making is not so good, it’s trying to be good, but it’s not quite that good”. It was frustrating, but I think what I didn’t realize at the time is that it was really important that I noticed that my work wasn’t up to par in the first place. Over the years, I’ve gone through similar phases where I just keep wanting to push myself to the point where what I’m producing is acceptable. The difference now, is that instead of feeling frustration – I try (mind you, I said try) to embrace it and allow myself to be pushed further.

An important factor in having this mindset is being ok with failure. Eric Dodds3, whom I work closely with at The Iron Yard4, shared an interesting story with me a few weeks ago that rings true and fits nicely with what Ira says about doing a lot of work. It was a story from what I later discovered was from the book “Art & Fear”5 by David Bales and Ted Orland and it goes something like this:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This is a shot I took from a visit to Tom Turner's pottery studio outside of Asheville, NC. Lots and lots of pots.

This is a shot I took from a visit to Tom Turner’s pottery studio outside of Asheville, NC. Lots and lots of pots.

I used to be precious about my work – agonizing over the smallest detail and only letting it go once I felt like it was just right – but it never was… not really. Over time I’ve realized that I just need to produce. The more I produce the better I get and the more mistakes I am able to learn from. Now I’m not saying that “good enough” is the way to go or that I don’t still push my work so that it’s the best it can be. All I’m saying is that I don’t agonize over trivial stuff, and just get the work out there so that I can create something better next time.

So here’s to doing, and here’s to not being afraid of failure. I just hope that more of my work is in the good category rather than the sucks category. The nice thing is, if I keep making stuff some of it will be good. Hopefully some of it will be great. None of it would be anything though if I never got around to making it in the first place.

  1. The full, unedited interview with Ira Glass talking about taste and creative work. Ira Glass Interview 
  2. An amazing audio production. This American Life 
  3. Partner and CMO at The Iron Yard. Eric Dodds’ Blog 
  4. The Iron Yard is a school dedicated to building the best software teams in the world. The Iron Yard 
  5. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon. “Art & Fear”