How To Find Your Voice

You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself – Miles Davis

There is a paradox you must accept if you want to find your voice: it takes work. This is counterintuitive because all of the great voices we admire, whether we find them in reading John Updike or Ray Bradbury, or see it in a Georgia Okeefe painting, seem as if they were always present in those creators. This is a falsehood. If you asked any of them, or any master of any craft, they’d tell you in painful detail how many years of work it took to develop the thing we, as consumers of their work, take for granted. It took them a long time to learn how to create like themselves.

We find this hard to believe because our view of other creators is inverted. We know them after they were famous. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works. We don’t see their many experiments, their uncertain output during the long years they developed the craft they’d become famous for. All makers require long, disciplined hours to develop their talents, hours they will never be shown at a museum or on a postcard. Go find the early works of Jackson Pollock: it took him years before he discovered the all-over style he’d become most famous for. Who knows how many plays Shakespeare wrote that he burned, or poems Emily Dickinson tore apart and buried in the dust.

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” — Steve Furtick

We are all born with a gap between our ambitions and our abilities, and ambitions rise much faster than abilities can. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, explained the gap this way:

“What 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 is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff what you are 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 why what you are making is a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. 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 of the creative people I know when through years of this… Everyone goes through this… the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work… it’s only by doing a huge volume of work that you will close that gap and the work you make will be as good as your ambitions.”

Many very talented people never develop their skills only because they can’t stand the feeling of this gap. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to be great quickly and when they’re not they feel they’re a failure, despite their foolish comparisons to ghosts of their own invention.

Some legendary writers and makers struggled with their own opinion of their work even after their success  No matter how popular they became they felt their work was flawed, inferior and immature, never reaching the standards invented in their own minds. Even the great ones felt doubts and held themselves in judgement. They failed to see how much value they’d brought to their readers in spite of their own criticisms. Some very successful artists never close the gap and you might not either.

Have patience. Be willing to experiment and try different things. Realize you might need to wait a week, a month, or a year to see something you’ve made with eyes objective enough to learn from it. Enjoy making things for the sake of making: what a gift to have the time to make at all! If you were born 100 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 resources to make it at all. If you feel love for your craft honor it with the discipline of showing up, even when it’s hard. 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.

14 Responses to “How To Find Your Voice”

  1. Nicole

    Awesome article! I love what Ira says about “your taste is good enough that you can tell why what you are making is a disappointment to you.” This is a perfect description of where I’m at right now. I’m in that “gap…making foolish comparisons to ghosts of my own invention.” I’m glad I found this article, it eases me…I just have to work on my patience.

  2. Jason

    It’s a cliche in some artistic circles that you have to be dead to be appreciated. Some of that is being ahead of your time. Some of that is the mystique; once you’re dead you can’t embarrass yourself and sully your work in the process.

    But I wonder how much of it is that your friends and heirs have ‘less taste’ than you, and so can be braver with your work than you could be.

    1. Scott

      Jason: you’re right about there being many factors in explaining why most artists are popular only after they’re dead. Another factor is simply the odds – the longer the timeline the greater the number of chances of being discovered (assuming the work was popular enough to gain some limited attention). I wonder how many blogs will become popular long after the authors have died.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I liked your line about blogs becoming popular long after the author has died.
    I think you are the first one to say that.

    This is heartening when so many folks are making a virtue out of “not caring”: careless typing, “text spelling” and writing stuff intended to be as dead as yesterday’s news–or this morning’s e-mail.
    The best way to have a good blog is to strive to have a classic blog: Dare to care.

  4. Adam S.

    Such a fascinating post, Scott. Your idea definitely changes my perception on self-awareness and creativity. I know I struggle with getting out of my own way when it comes pursuing creative outlets or speaking in public. On a side note – maybe you can write a follow-up to discuss our “tastes” objectively and what deems good taste? I say this because many people believe they have good taste, whether for fashion, music, food, or performance, just like most people consider themselves above-average drivers.

  5. Sean Crawford

    Adam, et al,
    People being mistaken about their driving is explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect where such people lack the competence to know what competence is. They cannot “see” competence. I guess they cannot “see” good art, either.

    The exciting thing is that if you, Adam, or I, pursue our art then gradually we can see more and more. This has happened with me in my writing, and I’m so happy. In fact, I see more now than I could ever hope to teach.
    Meanwhile, at my toastmaster club the folks like my evaluations because “you see things the rest of us miss.” That is exciting too. For my art of writing it’s been as reinforcing as losing pounds is to a diet-er, except that art takes a lot more man hours.

    A big factor in my putting in the hours on my art is: Doing so is where I belong. I got this concept from The War of Art, a book Scott reviewed: I realized that if I didn’t do my art then I would half-realize that something is terribly missing from my life… and this I could not bear.

  6. Elchanan Paley

    Actually, what most of people don’t know, is that 99% of the things in the world comes only with hard, patience work, and usually long. You just can’t get anything without work. But that’s not all: the real taste of life – and you can disagree with that, it won’t change the facts – is through work, and only. It’s something that worth a full article, even two (B.T.W, an idea for you, Scott), but I’ll try to make it short.
    The first rule of the world we leave in as human, is that we have to work. it sounds depressing, I know, but it’s really not. I won’t explain it fully, but here’s just a little, common example to make you think:
    Try to ask anyone you know who likes sudoku and do it on his free time. Ask him which sudoku he more likes to do: an easy one, or a hard one. In our simple way of thinking, the easy one in the best: at the end you get the same result, and it takes you less time and efforts. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But the truth is, that the hardese one is more enjoyable one. Weird, isn’t it?
    And just a last note: for most people, to stop working/studying or whatever they do daily for a few hours 5 days a week, to stop them for more then a few weeks will probably make them bored, sad and depressed. That also weird, at least for those who disagree with me…

  7. ShiraDestinie

    Thank you, Scott, for reminding us that discipline is not a dirty word.
    Today’s ‘normal’ date is: Sund, December 21, 2014
    Today’s U.N. Date is: Thursday, December 21, 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era)

  8. John

    I’m glad I finally found your site, Scott. Your frank, pull-no-punches advice sits well with me. This post reminds me of two quotes I lean on when I need help persevering in finding and expressing my voice:

    “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” — Steve Furtick

    “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” — Rabbi Hillel

  9. wil

    Amazing article Scott! Thank you!

  10. Jim LaValley

    I know this is late, as you wrote this article in 2012, but I wanted to let you know that it is inspiring! I have bookmarked it and will come back to it again.


  11. Owl

    Another thing is that we all have our own personality, and what is important to us and worthwhile to us, won’t be cherished by everyone, but only the few who have similar personalities to us. Its important to know that your audience may not be everyone of a certain population or age, but rather, everyone who has a similar life outlook as you do. Thus, it becomes okay to express yourself with the assumption that some people won’t understand or get you, but others certainly will appreciate you. We are all like a different color in a crayon box, and maybe we won’t be appreciated much by every color. Emily Dickinson is still not appreciated by everyone, and a lot of time has passed.


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