The Gap Between Our Taste and Our Work

Upon graduating I noted in an earlier post that when it came to my work, the toughest evaluators would no longer be my professors. Instead I would be the one giving the most critical reviews on my output. And as a result of this self-evaluation, I’ve noticed that at a certain point in a project, piece of writing, or work related task, I realize that what I’m working on is going to be either really good or below my standards.

But what exactly should you do when you get to that point? Should you continue moving forward, push through, and bust your ass until you produce something you’re proud of? Or should you quietly tuck your tail in between your legs, set the project aside, move on, and watch the latest episode of Basketball Wives? (Granted, sometimes putting the project aside isn’t really an option if what you're struggling with is related to your job function).

I ask this question because my immediate experiences involve a lot of newness and adjustment. And whether a person is starting a new job, transitioning out of an old one, or just striving for self-improvement, most people either knowingly or subconsciously ask themselves the question of whether what they are doing is being done well or poorly.

In regards to his experience writing his latest book The Start Up Of You, entrepreneur and writer Ben Casnocha says “The hardest part of an ambitious writing project as the writer is managing your own psychology.” He goes on to mention that “the key skill is managing the self-disappointment bordering on self-loathing that can overpower other emotions through the long, hard slog.”

Casnocha hits the nail on the head. A lot of times, we can be so critical with our work that we often lose sight of objectively how well we are performing. It’s silly, for example, for me to expect my writing to read as smoothly as one of my favorite blogger/essayists Paul Graham when he has been keeping his blog up to date for nearly two decades. I tend to focus on how much far behind my writing is, rather than focusing on how my writing reads as a writer who has been working for only a few months.

Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, frames this dilemma as the gap between our taste and our work.

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that 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, and 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 is 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 a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

The reason why it’s so much easier to leave things behind is because it’s much easier to come up with reasons why you shouldn't do something than to come up with reasons why you should, especially when, to put it in Ira’s words, it takes a whole volume of work that you are consistently less than proud of in order to start producing work that meets your expectations.

Before promising myself to keep a daily writing routine I protested with a list of reasons why I shouldn’t be blogging or even writing. It looked something like this:

  1. No particular audience is interested in reading what I have to say.
  2. I don’t want to put myself in a situation that opens me up to judgment and criticism any more than I have to.
  3. I’ve seen a lot of pathetic blogs before and they more or less serve as extensions of the writer’s ego.
  4. There is just not going to be enough time in the day to do this, especially now that I’ve started watching Breaking Bad.

By converse, I’ve started creating a list of reasons why I should keep writing. That list looks like this:

  1. I don’t know my potential yet. And this is the only way to find out.

Here's the entire five minute segment of Ira Glass on good taste and storytelling: