The identity gap
There’s a famous quote by Ira Glass that’s had a healthy life on the inspiration-for-creative-people circuit on the internet:
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.
I cut it off at the end but you get the gist. It’s a good observation and resonated with me enough that I printed it out and put it on my wall next to my desk a few years ago.
Then I had a thought the other day. I’ve found a weird sense of “happiness” this summer. Quotes because I don’t really trust it, as it’s foreign to me to feel genuinely happy for no reason for what feels like weeks now.
Naturally, I asked “what the fuck is going on?”
For Glass, the gap is primarily between how good your work (1) is now and how good the work of your heroes is. The gap between your work and the work that meets your standards of taste. Let’s call it the taste gap.
But I think there’s another level to this that Glass doesn’t touch on, an existential gap if you will. It’s not just that you are disappointed that you haven’t gotten good enough to make something you’re proud of — it’s that you’re not yet the person that you want to be.
You set out as a writer. You write a screenplay or a novel. The first one sucks. But you are writing and so you are a writer (identity here as defined by your actions, not by telling everyone that you are a writer or whatever).
But while you are a writer, we can add a qualifier: you’re a mediocre writer. Or a bad writer. A novice writer. A shitty writer. Whatever. I’m not saying this to be mean; it’s important to be honest with ourselves so we can get better.
And so the gap is more than a gap between the current quality of your work and the desired quality. It’s a gap in your identity, a gap between who you are today and how you want to see yourself (and how you want other people to see you). The gap creates a tension in you, or maybe a dissonance.
The feeling is experienced as an oft-present internal pressure or anxiety. You might have to walk around through life for years carrying this tension in you. That’s quite the mental burden and hence you seek out quotes like Glass’s to soothe the pain or you risk paralysis or getting torn up inside until you can’t go on. It’s probably what makes a lot of people give up, even in the face of countless inspirational “don’t give up!!” narratives.(2)
The existential terror of this is heightened because there’s no assurance that you will actually cross the gap and become a good writer or artist or actor or whatever. Odds are that you won’t.(3)
So what happened to me? I wrote and directed a film that I’m proud of. I think it’s good. People whose opinions I respect think it’s good. 99% of people might think it’s not good, but I’m proud of it and my friends like it. For me, that’s enough to cross the gap — it feels like a win and so it is a win. Not that it will find commercial success or even critical success, but it’s a win in that it’s helped me become whole by crossing the gap. I made good on my identity.
I called myself a filmmaker and now that I’ve made something that I’m proud of, the dissonance between what I call myself and how I feel about myself is resolved. Thus, happiness.
Why focus on the identity aspect?
I was thinking about another pursuit in my life where I am woefully worse than I would like to be: tennis.
I’m not comparing myself to Roger Federer, I’m comparing myself to the people I play with that are really good but nowhere close to being professionals. The gap is achievable in my lifetime and maybe in 3-5 years with regular lessons and practice. But I experience zero anxiety about this gap because it’s not something I claim as part of my identity. I think of myself as someone who happens to play tennis, not as a tennis player. I don’t care how the world views my tennis playing so I don’t feel a gap.
What’s the difference?
I mean, if we define identity by what we do, then tennis should define me as much as filmmaking. For me, it’s about a deeper pull I feel towards filmmaking or artistic expression. I don’t really understand the difference except that maybe I chose artistic expression and not tennis to be a part of my identity.
There’s some logical inconsistency there and I’m not really sure how to think about it yet.
Work here as shorthand for art, craft, tennis, whatever you’re trying to get better at ↩
Those narratives suffer from survivor bias. Nobody ever tells you about how they never gave up their dream of being an actor and then found themselves at 50, bitter and broke. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because those people don’t get invited to write books and speak, unless of course they turned that failure into some kind of other success and the failure serves the never-give-up narrative. ↩
I’ve failed at a few things this way and the psychic aftermath is pretty unpleasant. But don’t listen to people that say if you never give up, you’ll succeed eventually. They’re lying because they don’t know for certain anymore than you can know for certain. That’s kind of the point thought–that it’s something brave and risky because it can fail. Learning when to quit and try something else is an important skill and helps you get back up for another fight when your project fails. ↩