Where once information and advice was sparse, it’s now abundant. With that come sits own problems in identifying that which is worth retaining, and that which is worth discarding. This is the greatest advice for up-and-coming creatives I’ve ever heard.
Some years back, when I had finished my MRes and decided against a PhD, I had to either proverbially defecate or get off the latrine when it came to a career in photography. I had earned a little money from it — albeit not a lot — and flirted with the idea of going out on my own and trying to make a career doing what I loved. I was faced with one of the most unhelpful false dichotomies I’ve encountered. On the one hand (and these hands were no where near equal, this hand was gargantuan and the other was like a tiny claw) I was told that photographers don’t make any money. That there are far too many as it is, and the work is underpaid and rare. That everyone is a photographer these days and so professional photography will die out.
None of that side of the coin is demonstrably and unequivocally false, which gave it far too much credence. There’s a fascinating piece by The School of Life addressing the question “where have all the creative jobs gone?” It’s true, the number of creative positions is fewer than it once was and has been steadily heading that way for decades. However, this suggestion that my photography business was doomed from the offset was wrong for several reasons. Firstly, I had no intention on being just a photographer. I don’t mean that to be condescending to people who are purely photographers, but rather I had my sights on a multi-faceted career right from the get-go. Secondly, it was mostly anecdotal evidence. It’s true that photographers’ average yearly income is reasonably low, but if there are such an abundance, it’s almost impressive it’s as high as it is. Particularly when you factor in that most will be self-employed.
On the other hand of the debate was an almost doe-eyed optimism which warmly encouraged you to follow your dreams, without care for circumstance or even the dreams themselves. Truly, both advice factions are largely useless. They each had flecks of truth and wisdom, but they felt true by virtue of luck rather than foresight. I did however receive two pieces of great advice. One was about diversifying your income streams, and that’s an article for another day, but the other was more conceptual and applicable to all creatives. It is this well portioned soliloquy by famed radio broadcaster, Ira Glass.
There’s an incredible amount of distilled wisdom in just two minutes, but the greatest advice for creatives — particularly those early on in their journey — involves his distinction between taste and ability. Every creative goes through a phase where they know what they like, they know why they like it, but they cannot create anything of the same caliber. During this stage of the creative journey, many — most even — will conceded and give in. Now, this isn’t to say people outright quit what they’re pursuing or enjoy, but rather that they no longer strive for greatness.
Without realizing it, this was true for me very early on. There was a notable difference between what I wanted to create and what I was creating. To add confusion to this, I was aware what was my best work, and what was lesser work, which can trick you in to this sense that your best work stays at that level; that the quality level is stagnant. It isn’t. In fact, I now wholeheartedly believe that the work you aspire to, you can achieve the same quality with the right effort. That is, in Glass’s words, you can bridge the gap between you and your tastes. Feeling like your work doesn’t live up to what you want to create is perfectly normal. The difference between you and the people creating the work you aspire to is that when they were the wrong end of the gap, they kept working on how to bridge it.
I still want to create better quality work, and where I once strived to achieve some mythical checkered flag finish, finding myself suddenly firing on all cylinders, I now realize that I will forever move that goal further out of reach. In fact, I hope I never reach a sense of completion.