The gap in your art-making ability

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Scott Berkun in The Dance With The Possible explains how a skill gap is the distance between your current skills and the actual skills you need to bring your idea to life. “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.”

Seth Godin asks if our gap is fuelling us to grow or is keeping us stranded: “There’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be. Many gaps, in fact, but imagine just one of them. That gap–is it fuel? Are you using it like a vacuum, to pull you along, to inspire you to find new methods, to dance with the fear? Or is it more like a moat, a forbidding space between you and the future?”

Austin Kleon says that success for him is “closing the gap between what your days look like and what you want your days to look like.”

Ira Glass famously talked about the disappointing gap between your taste and where you want to get skill-wise: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners… But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” He said most people quit before narrowing that gap but “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” He stresses this process takes time and that’s normal.

This gap in your ability can only be narrowed by consistently repeated practice. If you can lower your expectations of leaping from beginner to master quickly, the feeling of disappointment about your not-so-great art won’t be as strong. Instead aim for small incremental steps of growth over a period of time and focus on the ways you have improved. The bottom line is there is no shortcut to improvement and quitting before you’ve given yourself a chance to grow is a real shame.

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Goofing off and being lazy

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Two examples of men at the very top of success in their fields, who talk about goofing off and laziness playing a role in their work lives. This goes against the grain of what we imagine work life to be when you’re at the top of your game, but doesn’t it sound nicer than the alternative of your nose constantly to a grindstone??

In a Malcom Gladwell Revisionist History podcast, Cliff Asness, a billionaire hedge fund manager, talks about not working hard: “This is not a secret. I don’t work as hard as people think. I goof off a lot.” Malcom Gladwell describes him as liking “puzzles, games, problems that engage the imagination.” And Asness confesses “I have been caught several times playing internet chess in my office…”

In a Freakonomics interview, behavioral economics and novel prize winner Richard Thaler discusses his reputation for being lazy:

DUBNAR: You’ve you’ve been accused – or really, praised – by your collaborator and mentor and friend Danny Kahneman as being extremely lazy, and furthermore, he argues that laziness has in fact been a big part of your success. What does he mean by that, and should we all try to be a bit lazier?

THALER: Well, I don’t know if I can recommend laziness… I have little patience for working on things that aren’t, at least to me, both interesting and somewhat important. And so compared to many economists or academics, I haven’t written a super large number of papers, and I don’t follow the habit of writing 20 versions of the same paper, or on the same topic, because I get bored. And the fourth paper on some topic is not nearly as interesting as the first one…

DUBNER: And the mechanism of that benefit is what? Because you’re lazy you just don’t want to waste time on things that aren’t going to be potentially important and/or interesting?

THALER: Yeah, that’s that idea. [emphasis added]

Work and rest are actually partners

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

To embrace rest, slowness and not-doing, to unbusy and schedule time in advance to recharge seems counter-intuitive in a world where there’s always something that needs doing. You could tick something off your to-do list or search the internet endlessly, but the to-do’s will never be done and not taking time to unplug and switch off from work is actually holding you back.

In this interview, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains “It seems self-evident that more work equals more output. This is true of machines, so why shouldn’t it be true of us? Well it’s not. We have adopted industrial-age attitudes, and they don’t really work for us. There is also a long-standing assumption that not working is morally suspect.”

Is not-working laziness? Does our culture frown upon idleness because succeeding and accomplishing is more desirable and is an outward arbitrary indicator of ‘success in life’? We’re certainly taught at a young age to work hard – to keep your nose to the grindstone – and eventually receive a reward. But as Soojung-Kim Pang points out “Work and rest are actually partners… You can’t have the high without the better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

Rest is overlooked in a modern world of productivity and hyperconnection to technology. Why do less when you can do more? But more does not necessarily equal success, satisfaction or contentment (most likely long term it will bring overwhelm, anxiety and burnout). And if incorporating rest into your daily life improves your work life, then let go of the reigns a little and regularly schedule off time.

“I am a lot more conscious now when I am in line at the bank or have a couple of free minutes; rather than pulling up my phone and checking e-mail, I will let my mind wander. I think it’s a good discipline and I think I have become better at crafting those moments that invite insight. And I carry a little notebook and pen all the time now.” – Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Think of your daily life as a hunt for art

“Think of your daily life as a hunt for art. Take note of what you notice and what you keep noticing. What interests you? It’s good to jot these things down as they come to you. Why not start an inspiration journal, with drawings, clippings, words, faces? Just keep adding and don’t censor. One rainy day when you’ve got nothing else to do, you can go through it all and see the connections. These connections are the gold mine of your inspiration. Use them.” — Carolyn Schlam

How to make rearranged word poetry

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

A variation on the rearranged work poetry (cutout poems) and collage typography experiments, but one that is transportable as you can always play with ‘final’ rearrangements in a notebook on the go. It’s is the same process as magnetic poetry, that encourages word play around the fridge and similar to the game Boggle. Danielle Krysa in Collage talks how “transformation is one of the best things about collage: the artist gets to finish telling, in a completely new way, a story that was started by someone else.” And how starting with a blank slate isn’t always best: “For anyone who has ever looked at a blank page and found it too darn perfect and intimidating – collage is a blessing. Starting with something and building on to it is a chance to remake stories, to create art out of something rather than nothing, to embrace whimsy and humour and pastiche.”

You will need: Text to cut up. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.

  1. Cut out the words: try to find a quote or title in bigger font so that cutting it up is easier
  2. Rearrange the words into different phrases, either manually or write them down
  3. Optional: fix in place with glue
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: original quote. Right: words cut up ready to be rearranged

You could try adding the finished phrases or poetry into other collages. You could mix and match different size fonts to give a different look. There are no rules about what you should make and you may find yourself drawn to certain words and combinations. Krysa explains “I think there is an element of my subconscious taking control while I work – only afterward will the subtle details and meaning within the work reveal themselves.”

I once did writing workshops in an elementary school, and it was the kindergartners and kids in the early grades who knew how to play with words. “A horn sounds red!” one write. “Mad is like touching the devil,” wrote another. “Mad is so bad it tastes like liver.” By the time they got to third grade, they were obsessing about whether to write their names in the upper left-hand or right-hand corner of the page. – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously

Your own reasons to create are reason enough

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

“Your own reasons to create are reason enough.” Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, who believes following your curiosities will lead you in the right direction; if you can give yourself permission and time to follow them. “Merely by pursuing what you love, you may inadvertently end up helping us plenty… Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”

While making art for fun is the reason, purpose and outcome of the process, we get caught up with needing to make something perfected and of value (i.e. it’s been worth the time invested to produce a physical thing). Instead of it being about how many valuable things you can make, what if if was about having fun creating? Gilbert explains “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?” The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Wanting to create a finished, perfected thing can halt the whole creative process. Instead of making something good, make something that’s done. Progress is always more beneficial than perfect: “if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Moving on quickly to make more art is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly so that we become less precious about making mistakes, and allow our creativity to flow. “At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is – if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heard.”

You are your own biggest critic, the only one that notices all the imperfections and rough edges in your art. Nobody else is keeping score because they’re too busy focusing on their own imperfections. Gilbert encourages us to make imperfect work and agrees that nobody is paying any attention anyway: “Pursue whatever fascinates you and brings you to life. Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice. And that’s awesome.” [emphasis added]