Fighting your way through the crap

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 its 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 awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

—Ira Glass talking about storytelling.

This advice is as useful for storytelling as it is for any type of creative work. Sifting through the mess of ideas and directions in your head and actually producing something—anything—is extremely challenging. The amount of crap you need to make before you make something good is truly frustrating when you have a good sense of what you like and what you know is good work.

If I could build on Glass’s advice, I would add that style and aesthetic are your two most important elements—perhaps these are the only two that even matter. As designers, we constantly get caught up with tools: WordPress, Drupal, Tumblr, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc. We (or at least I) often think that we’re a tool away from this great thing or that great thing, but we’re not.

The key ingredient of your next great thing isn’t a tool. It’s an idea, fueled by your style and aesthetic. With practice, your hands can be trained to use any of the tools to help you translate your idea into something you can actually show people. Defining, developing, and refining the aesthetic that sets you apart as a designer is the real trick.