Don’t Be Afraid to Make Ugly Art (or Ordinary Essays, or Less than Brilliant Presentations)

Pug dog with paint splatters on face, representing the idea of making ugly art.
Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

The advice we need when our work doesn’t match our aspirations.

I’m learning to draw at forty years old, and quite frankly, I suck. My hands can’t make what my mind sees. It’s exasperating. As I sketch and miss the mark, I’m conscious of the tiny people in my life soaking it all up. I want my kids to understand something it took me decades to figure out — don’t be afraid to make ugly art. Or lousy poetry or the occasional mediocre presentation. Not because you’re not aiming for excellence, but because that’s where you are at right now.

Get to know your gap

I’m a high achiever. But as I got older, I figured out my drive to do well was tangled. I needed to do well, or the shame gorillas crept in. Somewhere early on, my worth got all tied up in my achievements.

 Luckily for me, life is a teacher. It’s a brutal, off-beat, unpredictable teacher perhaps, but effective. Life experience, parenthood and creative expression through art, writing and poetry taught me that the gap between your skills and ambition isn’t a failure. It’s a skill gap. Shame slayer, Brene Brown, may have helped with the perspective shift too. I now appreciate that my 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. 

 So 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. Despite your best effort, the gap between your vision and your skills might mean you need to be prepared to create bad speeches, mediocre drawings, ordinary essays, and less than brilliant presentations.

It’s unfortunate, but you can’t move directly from nothing to good. I’ve given this strategy a crack plenty of times (with no results). You have to travel through lousy and mediocre before the 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. 

Image of a road with road signs, Welcome to lousy, Urge to quit next 100km, mediocre in the distance and good up a mountain far away in the distance.
Picture by Lisa McAully, the article author.

 The other thing to know is that if you create work that doesn’t meet your aspirations, it doesn’t mean your work lacks potential or value. It means you’ve got more work to do. 

 You’ll need to make epic stacks of essays or pictures or speeches or whatever you’re trying to do. I’ve found that moving through a significant volume of work is the honest secret to making solid progress. It’s one of those secrets that disappoints because it’s straightforward and unglamorous.

 Recognise the urge to quit (for what it is)

A close acquaintance of my skill gap is the urge to quit. It’s a predictable beast. It likes to show up when I learn just enough to realise how little I know or how basic my work is compared to what’s out there and what’s possible. It usually stirs something remarkably like mild panic. 

 When the urge to quit bubbles up, I try to recall this saying: “Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle.” The saying works like insect repellent. It doesn’t save you from every bite, but it sure helps. I heard it from Todd Henry, and I have remembered it ever since. It helps me keep the desire to compare in check so that I can redirect myself back to what matters: my progress and my work. 

 Share your work anyway

Wisdom can fall from unexpected places. I once saw a sign on a CrossFit Nitro building that said, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” The CrossFit guys gave me a new work mantra. When your work isn’t as good as you want it to be, or you’re unsure, I say share it anyway. It’s where you’re up to, and it’s what you’ve got. 

Author Alain de Botton writes, “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”

I love this, and I think a year is about right too. It’s just enough time for you to make progress and have the distance you need to see it. Consider it learning out loud — this makes the process less painful. 

 Be prepared though, learning out loud invites feedback. Feedback offered in the right spirit is essential to our growth. It stretches us in a way we can’t stretch when going alone. 

Unfortunately, some people operate like jerks and practice criticism as a form of daily exercise. So, be selective about the feedback you soak up. Not everyone is entitled to have a say in your work — you get to choose. Pay attention to people whose opinion you trust, or even better, people you know are invested in your success. The internet is not invested in your success. Turning off comments and filtering emails is a valid form of self-protection. 

 Keep going

“You’re going to make ugly art” isn’t a familiar message, but it’s our reality. Falling short is a healthy and necessary part of learning and making — the better we understand that, the better placed we are to grow.

Don’t stop if you feel like your work isn’t up to the standard you want it to be. It’s healthy to pause and reflect. You can periodically adjust. But ultimately, you need to keep going. That’s how we move forward.

Last night I drew an overwhelmed rabbit holding a phone. My daughter thought it was a tired cat holding a book. So close.

Drawing of bunny holding an iPhone looking overwhelmed.
Picture by Lisa McAully, the article author.

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
despite exertion
despite attention.

Better mud than air.
Mud can be shaped and moulded
into something.
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.

Poem by Lisa McAully, the article author.

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