Episode 18

19/04/2021

The Taste Gap and Ira Glass on Creativity

About this episode

Ira Glass on Storytelling is a cult hero of a quote about creativity. I want to talk about how we can live with and work around the taste gap in our creativity.

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The Taste Gap and Ira Glass on Creativity

What is the taste gap? Who is Ira Glass? What’s the real key to closing the taste gap? That’s today’s episode of The Positive Creatives!

[INTRO]

Hello friend and happy new week! The sun is shining here in Manchester at the moment and it feels so good. I really noticed today that the trees have leaves on, which also feels so great. There’s something about the transition between seasons that really lifts my spirits and gets me feeling fresh and ready for the new season.

Also it goes without saying that being able to spend time outside comfortably without a coat or a hat or gloves is a very welcome change!

Although only two weeks ago we had snow, so who knows how long this will last, but I’m embracing it… and I hope you are too!

Sorry I’m a little bit late in the day with this week’s episode too – it’s been one of those days… I had some other work to do this morning that I forgot about, boring stuff, then I played tennis in the sunshine, then I started working on this episode and THEN my son wanted to make cookies. So we made cookies. Then I lost that all important momentum. But it’s ok. We chose the creative life for the lifestyle and today I’ve lived the lifestyle! I’d encourage you to do the same.

And obviously, when there’s an opportunity to make cookies, you should do that. Or if there’s an opportunity to eat cookies. Basically cookies are always a good idea.

This week I want to introduce you to something I came across many years ago which was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me in my creative journey.

It’s a quote from Ira Glass. Now if you’ve never heard of Ira Glass then let me tell you a bit about him..

Ira Jeffrey Glass (born March 3, 1959) is an American public radio personality. He is the host and producer of the radio and television series This American Life and has participated in other NPR programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation.

Yeah I read that straight off Wikipedia. Just to save you googling him!

This little clip which I’m about to play you, is from a little interview he did for something called Current TV a long time ago. It’s part of a longer 5 minute clip called “Ira Glass on Storytelling” where he discusses what he sees as the building blocks of storytelling, which I’ll link in the show notes on the website for this episode. The whole 5 minute clip is worth listening to but I didn’t want to short change you by playing the full five minutes on this episode, so I’m pulling out 90 seconds, here it is…

“Nobody tells people who are beginners… and I really wish somebody had told this to me… is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap… that for the first couple of years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good – it’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good but it’s not quite that good. But your taste – the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer! And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point they quit. And the thing that I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing that I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase is you gotta know it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by going through an actual volume of work, that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work that you’re making will be as good as you’re ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while, it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.”

Ok cool, that’s it for this week – see you next time…

I’m joking obviously but how easy would that be? I could just play you a quote every week, drop the mic and leave?!

I’d never do that to you. I think we need to pull this apart a bit together.

So I’m calling that the taste gap. And it’s that taste gap that I wanted this episode to be about. Ira Glass is talking about an element of storytelling there, but clearly the reason it’s become such a cult hero of a quote is because it applies to all walks of creativity.

So many times earlier in my career, and I don’t know anyone who’s not felt this, so many times I’d see the photo I wanted to take in my head, but I just couldn’t make it happen. It’s a bit like being given all the ingredients for a michelin starred plate of food, but having no idea what to do with them… and it’s so frustrating isn’t it?

I think the main message we should hear in Ira Glass’s little monologue there… well actually there are two main take-aways I think, but the first is that everyone goes through this.

Everyone.

The one thing though, and of course I’d never say someone as esteemed as Ira Glass is wrong, is that he seems to say basically this lasts a couple of years and you’re out the other side and everything’s rosy.

That’s not my experience.

I’m 10 years deep into a photography career and still I often feel like the taste gap exists. Like there’s a gap between what I want to do and being able to actually do it.

We know now as I mentioned in a much earlier episode – maybe even episode 1 – that the creative cycle is a cycle. You start off thinking everything’s great, then it’s tricky, then it’s terrible, then you’re terrible, then it might be ok, then it’s all great again. And repeat forever and ever.

And if we’re going to enjoy this creative life we’ve chosen, that’s the cycle we need to accept.

And really the reason for those middle sections of the creative process – the ‘it’s tricky’, ‘it’s terrible’ and ‘I’m terrible’ sections, they’re really because of this gap between your taste and what you’re creating.

And it’s a gap that exists for a few reasons, and they’re all really things we can work on.

The first is that you’re inexperienced.

Obviously this always applies in the early days and is actually the most infuriating phase of all.

You have ideas, but not the skills to make those ideas reality.

When you’re in this phase the best thing you can do is learn to love the process of trying stuff.

Experimenting.

I miss the days when everything I did was experimental, because I had no idea how to actually do anything. In photography I mean.

Being experimental is much more important in the early days than creating anything consistent stylistically.

You’ll learn so so so much more about yourself as an artist by experimenting than if you just went down a path to a certain style because you see it as desirable.

So let yourself run free. Experiment. Try stuff and embrace the world of trial and error. And try to always keep that element to your work even once you start to find your style and develop a more consistent feel to your work.

The next reason is that you are trying to imitate the work of people you look up to, or stuff you’ve seen on the internet or socials.

It’s so difficult to successfully imitate the work of others.

The best you can hope for is your version of their stuff.

If you’re able to successfully imitate, then really it’s not worth it because if it’s that easy to copy, there’s nothing unique about it anyway.

And if you listened to last week’s episode about imitation you’ll know I don’t frown upon imitation, for some people it can be a fundamental step on the path to greatness.

But if you’re letting your own personal taste be overridden by what’s cool or what’s desirable then this is where the disconnect happens.

So ask yourself.

Is it your taste, or do you like it because other people like it and you want people to like your stuff too, so you’ve convinced yourself you need to make your stuff in a certain way that is actually a little bit at odds with your own taste, but if you need to go against your own taste to get work or likes or attention then so be it.

I actually think a lot of people make this mistake, and it’s not their fault.

I think what can happen is when we’re in the first phase I mentioned before – experimenting and trying and embracing trial and error, that’s the time when we’re most likely to be relatively low on confidence. Partly because of the Dunning Kruger effect (have a listen back to episode one if you don’t know what that is) but also because it’s the time when the taste gap Ira Glass talks about is at its widest. It just seems like we’re so far from being able to create work at the level we want to, that we’re completely overawed.

So we ask for advice from other people who do what we’re starting to do.

And what happens?

They tell you the RULES.

They tell you what you shouldn’t do because it’s not cool or it’s not the done thing, or it’s a gimmick, or it’s frowned upon by ‘the industry’.

And sometimes the rules will be at odds with your taste, so your taste is kind of beaten out of you at a time when it should be allowed to run free.

It’s funny how we’re told that the best thing we can do is think outside the box but the first thing we’re kind of encouraged to do is to get in the box. Why is that? Maybe that’s for another episode.

So you start with this chasmic taste gap, ask for advice and often are told you shouldn’t be wanting to do it that way, and that you should really do it this way if you want people to think you’re cool or book you or like your posts on instagram or whatever.

And once that mindset is in you, it kind of sticks with you for the rest of your career so any time you’re having a crisis of confidence or finding yourself unable to bridge the taste gap, you default to imitation because, well, it’s easier than experimenting or trying to work it out on your own.

So what I’m saying is the taste gap never goes away because as you gain more life experience, or your tastes change in general, your creative taste will morph and evolve too. So while I wish it was true that after a few years of struggle you’d come out into this blissful life of being able to just snap your fingers and create anything that comes into your head, it’s just not the case is it?

What I absolutely do agree with, with every ounce of my being, is that the way out of this is to do as Ira Glass says, and do a huge volume of work.

Notice that he’s not saying anything specific here. It’s not about doing a lot of specific work, it’s just to do with always making sure you’re creating something.

If like me your creativity is centred around a job, you need to find ways to create between the jobs, because that’s where your style will be moulded because you’ll push the boundaries and borders of your creative style, into failure and trial and error and experimentation and all the goodness that concoction brings.

The more work you do the smaller the gap between your taste and what you’re creating will feel. But it’ll always be there, and accepting that is really vital.

The more work you do the more techniques your creative mind will learn and absorb, so the next time your taste says ‘how about this’ you’ll be able to reply with ‘yeah I think I can do that’.

It might not turn out exactly how you wanted it but sometimes it’s cool to surprise yourself and always remember the phrase:

Done is better than perfect.

And as you know from episode 4 – there’s no such thing as perfect anyway!

One final point I want to make about taste is you need to know the difference to something not living up to your own personal taste, and something not living up to what you assume other people’s taste to be.

Never assume.

You have to go with your own taste, always. Your work will ooze soul if you do this. If you try and make work to satisfy other people’s tastes, it’ll never work – they won’t like it, and neither will you. So don’t do that.

So make your work. Make lots of it, constantly. Embrace the process of experimentation and failure between client work, and know that the taste gap is an ever evolving thing that never goes away.

But as Ira Glass says so eloquently… your taste is killer.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode, it feels a little longer than usual I hope that’s ok!

Here are your listen, read and watch recommendations:

LISTEN – Go and listen to the rest of Ira Glass on Storytelling – as I said the link is in my show notes. If you want to you can go down an Ira Glass rabbit hole on YouTube too.

READ – Not a book this week, but I’d suggest if you haven’t already you sign up to Seth Godin’s daily email newsletter. He will send you a snippet of wisdom every day. How he can pack such a punch into such a small number of words each day is beyond me. That’s an insane creative skill in itself. Again there’s a link in the show notes.

WATCH – It’s another Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk, and it’s a long one. It’s called “It’s ok to feel overwhelmed. Here’s what to do next.” and it’ll give you loads to think about. Huge Elizabeth Gilbert fan here.

Nice! Ok. That’s all for this week. See you back here next week for more positive creative thoughts on The Positive Creatives!

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