In my private practice, I get the opportunity to work with many creative people who come to me feeling stuck. Often times, they are feeling stuck because they have some good ideas that they'd like to communicate with the rest of us but they find themselves up against some pretty overwhelming chasms that I (and some others who are smarter than me) call the three gaps of creativity.
My artist clients are often surprised by the gap that exists between how their idea feels in their mind and how it feels when they try to make the idea work outside of themselves. Since I'm also an artist, I understand the amazing feeling that happens when a good idea really gels. Scott Berkun says that "good ideas often come with a wave of euphoria, a literal dopamine high, and we’re joyously overwhelmed by it. It’s natural in that instant to overlook the dozens of questions that must be answered to bring the idea to life. We easily postpone those questioning thoughts, believing that if we can come up with the big idea surely we can conquer all the little problems too. An epiphany is a powerful experience, but the myth of epiphany is that it alone is all you need."
Isn't it frustrating that when we do sit down to work on the details of an idea, the euphoria fades away? The actual work of thinking about how to bring the idea into the world is was less fun that the fantasizing about the idea’s realization. It might take an hour or a day to put do, but soon the tasks necessary for bringing your idea to fruition feel really boring. Even though your elevator pitch is spot on, it doesn’t negate the effort required to complete all of the sketches, drafts and models required to flesh the idea out into its final form.
The effort gap
This is the effort gap. No matter how great your idea is, there will always be energy you have to spend and effort you have to put in, often on relatively boring work, to deliver your baby to the world.
Berkun says that "the instinctive reaction to the realization that your amazing idea has led to ordinary work is to retreat. We feel we are doing something wrong if delivering on the idea isn’t as stimulating as finding the idea itself. Somehow we believe the feeling of euphoria should remain throughout the entire project, and when it doesn’t, and we have to choose to put effort in, we assume something is amiss." Hollywood often skips from the discovery of the idea to fame and fortune, but in real life we have to close that distance ourselves. Or maybe, if we're more honest with ourselves, we just don’t want to work that hard, preferring to return to the excitement of thinking up more ideas rather than doing anything about them. I don't think that there's anything wrong with this but the problem shows up when we beat ourselves up by denying the fact that we have less ambition than we wish we had.
Many people suffer from creative cold feet and a fear of commitment. I know that I have. Sometimes we're afraid of closing the effort gap. We want to be creative but without taking any risks. We know there is a chance that we can put in a lot of time and effort only to see the project fail at the other end. So, we prefer to keep the idea locked inside our minds. When someone else produces something with a similar idea, maybe we claim false possession, exclaiming, “I thought of that years ago!” But guess what? The only way to possess an idea is, as Berkun says, "closing the effort gap and actually putting something out into the world." As it turns out, coming up with the idea is the easy part.
The skill gap
Sometimes the problem is realizing that while the idea is super good, and you’re willing to put the effort in, the skills you have aren’t good enough to deliver on it.
The natural assumption is that the ability to have the idea is the harder part, and if the idea is good it assumes you have all the required abilities. Unfortunately, we learn once again that assumption makes, well, you know what I'm talking about. For example, while I can imagine performing quadruple backflip dives and singing five-octave melodies, that imagination has no bearing on my body’s ability to do those things.
Berkun calls this the skill gap, "the distance between the skills your idea requires and the ones you have." Often it’s only through putting effort into a project that we discover our skill gaps.
When we see work from our heroes, it’s easy to forget they once had skill gaps too. We imagine they were born with the abilities we know them for. The problem is our view of other creators is backwards. We know them after they became famous and after they learned their craft. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works but rather those considered masterpieces. When we see a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in a museum, or a J.R.R. Tolkien novel in the bookstore, we see the creators at their best and likely in their prime. We don’t see their many experiments, their uncertain output during the long years they developed the skills they’d become famous for. The many artists that I work with truly struggle with insecurity. The reason that we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel. It takes a lot of digging in the recesses of a person's studio to find their behind-the-scenes work.
Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.… there’s a gap… for the first couple years that 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.
Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to improve at a pace that comes only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they fall apart. Sometimes we lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill we might be capable of. It's always tempting to search for an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none exists, especially the heroes that we all look up to for inspiration. The tough news that Ira Glass suggests is that it’s easier for our ambitions to grow, as that happens only by consuming good works, than it is for our skills to improve, something that requires dedicated effort.
One way that I've been able to encourage my clients to remain motivated in closing skill gaps is to study the history of masters they admire. The early works of Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock are super different from the styles they became most famous for. Brad Pitt’s first “acting role” was in a chicken costume for a Mexican fast food restaurant. And, really, who knows how many awful plays young Shakespeare wrote that he burned? Honest biographies of nearly every famous musician, writer or entrepreneur will highlight in painful detail how they worked to close the skill gaps in their careers.
The quality gap
Once you’ve got your skills locked in, how you choose to use them becomes a matter of style. Style, or quality, gaps are the most subjective of all. Unlike effort and skill gaps, a quality gap is a subjective opinion about the quality of what is made. When Picasso began working in his cubist style or entered his blue period, it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. There was a specific quality, a feeling, a tone, an effect he wanted that he struggled to obtain. Depending on what idea you have in your mind, even if you work hard and have the right skills, you will still experience quality gaps as you work on projects.
Some really famous creators struggled with their own opinion of their work, even after their public success. No matter how popular they became, they felt their work was flawed, not good enough, and maybe worst of all, never reaching the standards that they set for themselves. For example, Bruce Springsteen once called the Born To Run album “the worst piece of garbage” he’d ever heard, and didn’t want to release it. Berkun mentions that "artists are often victims of their own perceived quality gaps. They struggle to match the ideas in their minds to what they can manifest in the world."
Some very successful creators never close the quality gap, at least not on every project, and you likely won’t either. This is fine, perhaps even good. Continued growth requires that when you finish a project you’ll see it differently than when you started. And in the very things you find lacking or wish you had done differently you find the motivation for the next project, and the one after that. "To be perfectly satisfied with something you made likely means you didn’t learn anything along the way, and I’d rather be a little disappointed with projects now and then than experience the alternative of never learning anything at all" (Berkun).
These three gaps, effort, skill and quality, will be constant companions. Have patience in how you deal with them. As a creator you are part of a challenging trade where it takes time to develop your craft and that development never ends. If you really believe in your ideas and potential, stay the course and commit to the long, and only realistic, path to fulfilling your ambitions.
If you can, take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard...especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small amounts of progress when you experience it and remember, as Berkun writes, "those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world."
References: The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. (Scott Berkun)