On sustained creative careers
I was in college when I first saw the interview with Ira Glass where he talks about the gaps between your tastes and your talents. In the original video — it’s since been remixed, animated, memed, and more — he’s sitting in his studio talking about the early years of This American Life and he says how when you are just starting out, your taste isn’t aligned with your own talents — the things you know how to do. You have good taste, you know what is good, but you don’t quite know how to do it yet. You don’t know how to get from where you are to the work you admire.
I remember this resonating with me as someone about to graduate. Over the previous year, I saw my work improve and for the first time, I felt like my class projects were things I could be proud of, things I wanted to show in my portfolio, and things that looked closer to the work I wanted to do. There was still growth to happen but I felt like I was getting closer. My gap between my talents and my taste was getting smaller.
What I didn’t realize at the time — and I wonder if Ira did? — is that this is not a one-time thing. This isn’t just something for young artists — whether that’s radio producers or graphic designers — but something that can happen at any time in your career. Perhaps, even multiple times.
It’s not just that your talents increase, your tastes become more refined too. You get more particular about what you like, about what is good. I have higher standards than ever before, I think, whether that’s the designers I admire, the writers I read the most, or the films I return to again and again. In some ways, this can be paralyzing: if you have higher standards — both for your work and the work of others — it can prevent you from finishing (or just starting) projects. I feel this often: that paralyzing feeling that I want to make something but no longer know how, or I’m unable to find ways to move them forward or to close the new gap between my talents and my taste.
There’s another Ira Glass quote that I love, more than the famous one, to be honest. In an interview on the Longform podcast, which I listened to when I was in graduate school, he said the way to have a long, sustaining creative career is to keep making the craft harder for yourself. Like the first quote, this resonated with me when I first heard it. I was once again back in school, and I was there because I wanted to make the work harder for myself.
These two quotes are connected, I’m realizing now. Every time you make the work harder for yourself, the gap between taste and talent open up again. This, perhaps, is the key to a long creative career then: a constant opening and closing of this gap. More challenges, more refinement, more learning.