You can fill a kid’s heart with hope when you tell them, “You can do anything you set your mind to”, but the message is missing vital information. To bring the notion alive, you need to know about the small print. Instead, we should say, “You can do anything you set your mind to, but don’t be afraid to make ugly art.” This mantra doesn’t just apply to painting and drawing; when it comes to creating something or learning a new skill, it’s a principle to live by.
I’m learning to draw at forty years old, and quite frankly, I’m not very good. My hands can’t make what my mind’s eye sees. I have a backlog of scratchings I want to draw and share, but the speed and skill required to efficiently and accurately make the pictures still escapes me. This gap between your skills and vision is sometimes called your ‘ambition gap’. My ambition gap doesn’t mean I’m not trying or making progress. It means right now, the things I make aren’t as good as I want them to be.
But here’s the deal, when you’re developing a skill, there’ll always be a period when you can’t achieve the standard you want so badly. Your ambition gap might mean you need to be prepared to make bad speeches, mediocre drawings and paintings, ordinary essays, or less than brilliant presentations despite your very best effort.
The other thing to know is that creating work that doesn’t meet your aspirations doesn’t mean what you did lacks potential or value. It just means you’ve got more work to do. You’ll need to make stacks upon stacks of essays or pictures or speeches or whatever you’re trying to do — moving through a significant volume of work is the secret to making solid progress.
The truth is, you can’t move directly from nothing to good. You have to travel through lousy and mediocre before good is even on the horizon. Then if you trudge on through good long enough and far enough, you might (eventually) catch a glimpse of mastery.
Better mud than air
Your mind sees fine, but your hands make mud.
Ideas flow and fall but fail to form
crystals as desired or aspired,
instead, they make a puddle
unworthy of your intention
Better mud than air.
Mud can be shaped and moulded
An ugly something, maybe
but ugly is something, not nothing, not air.
From ugly, you can touch somewhat improved
and, in time, encounter better.
Perhaps you’ll greet good though it’s not promised;
play in the mud as long as you dare.
When encouragement discourages
It’s nice to feel encouraged, but sometimes our culture’s “be positive, and you can do anything” mindset can leave us feeling disheartened when we make mediocre stuff despite our best efforts. Places like Instagram and Pinterest are bursting with snappy inspirational quotes like “Don’t be afraid to be great” and “Believe you can, and you’re halfway there”. Closer to home, people might say things like, “you just need confidence, and you can do it”, or they might tell us our work is excellent when it’s not (and we know it.) When these messages don’t match our reality, we can feel diminished and discouraged.
As we work and struggle to make things, I think we need to hear something different. More like:
“I know it’s hard, and you have moments where it feels impossible, but nothing worth doing is easy. If it’s easy and doesn’t ask something of you, you’re probably headed in the wrong direction. Motivation might come easily, the idea might come easily, but the making and the doing are hard. You’re going to suck at what you’re doing before you get any good, and that’s ok. Being lousy at something is the first step, and it’s a mandatory part of the road towards mastery. So keep making and learning.”
The urge to quit
There’s typically a moment when you learn something new where the urge to quit bubbles up. It frequently comes when we learn just enough to realise how little we really know or how basic our work or skill is compared to what’s out there and what’s possible. For me, this moment always causes a kind of mild panic.
When this feeling shows up, I try to remember this phrase: “Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle.” I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but I heard it from Todd Henry and have remembered it ever since. It helps keep the urge to compare in check so you can focus on your path and progress (and not what you can’t do).
“You’re going to make ugly art” isn’t a familiar or popular message but prepares us for the reality of learning and making. When we make peace with falling short as we learn and persevere, we give ourselves enough space to make progress without so much worry and angst.
So go get making and doing; there’s much work ahead of you!