The Three Gaps of Creativity: Effort, Skill and Quality

[This is an excerpt from the book The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. If you enjoy it, imagine how much you’ll like the whole book?]

The great surprise for people with good ideas is the gap between how an idea feels in their mind and how it feels when they try to put the idea to work. When a good idea comes together it feels fantastic. Good ideas often come with a wave of euphoria, a literal dopamine high, and we’re joyously overwhelmed by it. It’s natural in that instant to overlook the dozens of questions that must be answered to bring the idea to life. We easily postpone those questioning thoughts, believing that if we can come up with the big idea surely we can conquer all the little problems too. An epiphany is a powerful experience, but the myth of epiphany is that it alone is all you need.[1]

When we do sit down to work on the details of an idea, the euphoria fades away. The act of thinking about how to bring the idea into the world is far less fun than the magical feeling of the idea’s arrival. It might take an hour or a day, but soon the tasks at hand feel surprisingly ordinary. While the 30-second summary of your science fiction screenplay is still fantastic, it doesn’t eliminate the effort required to write three, or more, complete drafts to flesh the idea out into its final form. Even if your idea was for your job, perhaps an inspiring new proposal you have for your boss, the work of drafting the required project plans and obtaining budget approvals just isn’t very interesting. This is the effort gap. No matter how great your idea is, there will be energy you have to spend, often on relatively ordinary work, to deliver it to the world.

The instinctive reaction to the realization that your amazing idea has led to ordinary work is to retreat. We feel we are doing something wrong if delivering on the idea isn’t as stimulating as finding the idea itself. Somehow we believe the feeling of euphoria should remain throughout the entire project, and when it doesn’t, and we have to choose to put effort in, we assume something is amiss. In the movies they often skip from the discovery of the idea to fame and fortune, but in real life we have to close that distance ourselves.[2] Or perhaps more honestly we simply don’t want to work that hard, preferring to return to the thrills of thinking up more ideas rather than doing anything about them. There is nothing wrong with this, as dreaming for dreams’ sake can be fun. The problem is when we torture ourselves by denying the fact that we have less ambition than we wish we had.

Many people suffer from creative cowardice and a fear of commitment. They are afraid of closing the effort gap. They want to be creative but without any risks. They know there is a chance they can put in weeks of work and have the project fail. So they prefer the shallow perfection of keeping the idea locked in their minds, taking it out only to stroke their ego and annoy their friends. When someone else produces something with a similar idea, perhaps a movie or an invention, they’ll claim false possession, exclaiming, “I thought of that years ago!” But the only way to possess an idea is by closing the effort gap and actually putting something out into the world. Coming up with the idea, it turns out, is often the easy part.

Sometimes the problem is the recognition that while the idea is excellent, and you’re willing to put the effort in, the skills you have aren’t good enough to deliver on it. The natural assumption is that the capacity to have the idea is the harder part, and if the idea is good it implies you have all the required abilities. Sadly, like many common assumptions of our silly little brains, the reality isn’t as kind. For example, while I can imagine
performing quadruple backflip dives and singing five-octave melodies, that imagination has no bearing on my body’s ability to do those things. This is the skill gap, the distance between the skills your idea requires and the ones you have. Often it’s only through putting effort into a project that we discover our skill gaps.

When we see work from our heroes, it’s easy to forget they once had skill gaps too. We imagine they were born with the abilities we know them for. The problem is our view of other creators is inverted. We know them after they became famous and after they learned their craft. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works but rather those considered masterpieces. When we see a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in a museum, or a J.R.R. Tolkien novel in the bookstore, we see the creators at their best and likely in their prime. We don’t see their many experiments, their
uncertain output during the long years they developed the skills they’d become famous for. As Steven Furtick said, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” We have to go out of our way to find their behind-the-scenes work, and often we forget it even exists.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, explained how these skill gaps work against us[3]:

“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.… there’s a gap… for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…. It’s not that great.… It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…. A lot of people never get past this phase.… they quit.

And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years [of this]…. Everybody goes through that…. And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work… it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to improve at a pace born only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they despair. They lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill they might be capable of. Instead they want an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none of the heroes they compare themselves against ever had one. The tough news that Ira Glass hints at is that it’s easier for our ambitions to grow, as that happens simply by consuming good works, than it is for our skills to improve, something that requires dedicated effort.

One way to stay motivated in closing skill gaps is to study the history of masters you admire. The early works of Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock are drastically different from the styles they became most famous for. Brad Pitt’s first “acting role” was in a chicken costume for a Mexican fast food restaurant.[4] Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, was cut from his junior varsity basketball team. And who knows how many lousy plays young Shakespeare wrote that he burned, or poems Emily Dickinson tore apart and buried in the dust? Honest biographies of nearly every famous musician, writer or entrepreneur will share in painful detail how they worked to close the skill gaps in their careers.

Once you’ve developed your skills, how you choose to use them is a matter of style. Style, or quality, gaps are the most subjective of all. Unlike effort and skill gaps, a quality gap is a subjective opinion of the quality of what is made. When J.K. Rowling filled five pages of made-up Q words, it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. There was a specific quality, a feeling, a tone, an effect she wanted that she struggled to obtain. Each word still didn’t feel quite right, so she’d come up with another one (put another way, she solved a quality gap by creating and closing an effort gap).[5] Depending on what idea you have in your mind, even if you work hard and have the right skills, you will still experience quality gaps as you work on projects.

Some legendary creators struggled with their own opinion of their work, even after their public success. No matter how popular they became, they felt their work was flawed, inferior and immature, never reaching the standards set in their own minds. Woody Allen rarely watches his films once they’re finished, and thinks little of Manhattan and Annie Hall, two of his most famous works. Bruce Springsteen once called the Born To Run album “the worst piece of garbage” he’d ever heard, and didn’t want to release it.[6] Nabokov hated many of his novels, and had thrown the manuscript for Lolita into a fire.[7] Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson both gave instructions to have all their work destroyed when they died. Artists are often victims in a way of their own perceived quality gaps. They struggle to match the ideas in their minds to what they can manifest in the world.

Some very successful creators never close the quality gap, at least not on every project, and you likely won’t either. This is fine, perhaps even good. If you want to keep growing it demands that when you finish a project you’ll see it differently than when you started. And in the very things you find lacking or wish you had done differently you find the motivation for the next project, and the one after that. To be perfectly satisfied with something you made likely means you didn’t learn anything along the way, and I’d rather be a little disappointed with projects now and then than experience the alternative of never learning anything at all.

These three gaps, effort, skill and quality, will be constant companions. Have patience in how you deal with them. Consider yourself part of a
challenging trade where it takes time to develop your craft and that development never ends. If you truly believe in your ideas and potential, you should be willing to stay the course and commit to the long, and only realistic, path to fulfilling your ambitions.

If you can, take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them: what a gift to have the time to make at all! If you were born 200 years ago, or to different parents in a different country, you wouldn’t have the time to feel bad about your work, because you wouldn’t have the wealth and time required to try. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small progressions when you see them, and know those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world.

[This is an excerpt from the book The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. If you enjoyed it imagine how much you’ll like the whole thing?]

[1] Scott Berkun, “The Myth of Epiphany”.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ira Glass on Storytelling, part 3, and How To Find Your Voice

[4] Jonny Black, “Brad Pitt Facts,” Moviefone, October 17, 2014.

[5] The divisions between effort, skill and quality gaps break down eventually. In a way, all gaps are effort gaps, as work must be put in to fill gaps of any kind. But at times it can be useful to ask: do you need to put in more effort? Invest in skill development? Or simply have more patience to get to the quality you desire?

[6] Louis P. Masur, “Tramps like Us: The Birth of Born to Run,” Slate, September 22, 2009, l.

[7] George Lowery, “Vladimir and Vera Nabokov had ‘mystifying’ relationship, Schiff Says,” Cornell Chronicle, June 23, 2006.

5 Responses to “The Three Gaps of Creativity: Effort, Skill and Quality”

  1. Sean Crawford

    I like how in Sting’s book he says that he was in a house band in a community pub. He felt a responsibility to his regular audience to have one fresh song for them every weekend. So that meant he needed to compose, re-work, rehearse and perfect a new song every week.

    I guess that constant output is (partly) why he became a world class composer. He inspires me to finish a piece weekly too.

    Reply
  2. Adam

    This article makes the implicit argument that the secret to success is hard work. I’m not sure that this is the case. There are many substitutes for effort – luck, nepotism, and discoverability being but three examples…

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I’d never say there was any single secret to this or anything. So of course I agree that luck matters – in fact it’s everywhere. We’re both lucky to have been born at all (as we had no control over it) and also lucky to have been born in a place and time with technologies like books, electricity and (eventually) an Internet to write things on (like this comment!).

      But within the context of many kinds of creativity, hard work is the table stakes. No one can read a novel you don’t write or see a movie you don’t produce. Will a million people read your novel? That probably has more to do with luck than writing it does, but if you don’t write it, any luck you might have obtained is irrelevant. And if you learn from the history of which novels became popular and why, it tips the scales of luck, however slightly, in your favor.

      Pasteur famously said “…chance favors the prepared mind” and I agree.

      Reply
  3. IT Staffing

    Yes, for any employee or for any person, executing their ideas in reality will leads to a great difference and at the initial stage during that process everyone fails but the main and necessary thing is that, one have to self esteem their selves and have to move forward. Success will not comes up to you without facing any hurdles. It was a very nice information quoted above. Thank You.

    Reply
  4. Anna

    This was such a great article! I bought the book on the spot :)

    Reply

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