What Every Successful Person Knows, But Never Says

Ira Glass is the host and executive producer of the popular National Public Radio show, This American Life.

Each week, This American Life is broadcast to more than 1.7 million listeners across 500 different radio stations. For Glass, who is featured in almost every episode, the show has led to a wide range of opportunities including book deals, feature films, and appearances on popular television shows.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

What Every Successful Person Knows, But Never Says

Glass started out at NPR as a 19-year-old intern. The next decade was filled with a lot of hard work and very little payoff as he worked as a reporter.

Fifteen years into his career, Glass finally began co-hosting his first show, which was called The Wild Room. The show was his idea, but Glass would later describe it by saying “one show would be horrible and two shows would be decent.” The Wild Room aired during a particularly unpopular Friday evening slot and in Glass’ words “it deserved its time slot.”

After struggling through two years of The Wild Room, Glass finally pitched the idea for This American Life and received meager funding to get it started. Over 15 years and millions of listeners later, the rest is history.

But here’s the part that I find really interesting.

Check out how Ira Glass describes his long struggle to create something noteworthy:

From Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this 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 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 that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
—Ira Glass

If you’d like to hear Glass say it himself, listen to the audio clip below.

The Thing That Got You Into The Game

We all have reasons for being pulled to the things we love.

When he was just a 19-year-old intern, Ira Glass had a taste for journalism and storytelling. He knew what good journalism looked like when it was done well. But it took him 17 years of work before he could start to do it well himself. And, as he says above, that was frustrating.

I think you and I face a similar type of battle.

  • Spend a year or two in the gym and you’ll start to recognize good technique, even if your own could use some work. This is something I’m struggling with right now. I know a great clean and jerk when I see one, but when I grab hold of the bar it’s still hard for me to pull it off.
  • Start writing consistently and you’ll begin to take notice when you read great work. But good luck trying to produce your own brilliant words. In the beginning, it can be difficult just to get something on the page. And even when you can hammer out sentences, young writers quickly learn that all words aren’t created equal. Even with consistent writing each week, I still feel like I fail to produce something of note.
  • Watch a dozen TED Talks and you’ll be able to point out what you like and don’t like about certain presenters, but jump up on stage yourself and the difficulty of captivating an audience — even for a minute or two — becomes quite apparent.

And so it goes for virtually any skill. There is always a gap between being an apprentice and being a craftsman. The apprentice has the taste, but not the skill. The craftsman has the taste and the skill.

It’s easier to recognize beauty than it is to create it. You’re good enough to know that what you’re doing isn’t good, but not good enough to produce something great. When you find yourself in this frustrating limbo, the challenge is to never forget what got you there in the first place. Remember that thing that got you into the game.

Your love. Your passion. Your taste. That’s the reason you’re here. You still belong, even if you don’t feel like it right now. Your taste can be killer even if your ability is questionable.

Commit to the process and you’ll become good enough, soon enough. Put in a volume of work. Close the gap.

What to Do Next

Developing skills that are as good as your taste comes down to habits. The ability to “fight your way through” as Glass says, hinges on your consistency to show up and do the work. Can you build the habits required to make small improvements day after day?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but my hope is that I can help a little bit. I’ve spent the last year writing and researching the science of habit formation. Much of what I have learned (including strategies for becoming more consistent and improving your performance) is covered in my free 46-page guide called Transform Your Habits. It’s available for free to anyone who subscribes to my weekly newsletter.

If you haven’t already read it, you can download a copy here.

References:
1. Ira Glass interview.

32 Comments

  1. Sean Murphy says:

    Thanks James. I enjoyed this.

    To me it obviously applied to sports and weightlifting but for some reason I just expect creative work to be perfect every time.

    While you’re on the subject of radio presenters you should check out Earl Nightingales audiobook “Lead the Field” if you haven’t already.

  2. Ben S. says:

    Thank you for the great reminder that we all struggle to get better at things and that struggling through and continuing with things is part of the process that helps to make us better.

    I thought you might enjoy this illustration of the Ira Glass quote from the site ZenPencils.

  3. It’s the whole “easier said than done thing” that I always struggle with. Things look like they’re replicable and when you go for it you start appreciating the art more. A lot of my ego gets in the way and makes me feel a bit too confident.

  4. Aniruddh Agarwal says:

    Awesome post James. I myself am an aspiring web designer and while I can differentiate a good design from a bad one and provide criticism, but when it’s my turn to whip out a design, I falter. I try to make it perfect, I spend days on a single part of the design, and I eventually end up doing nothing.

    This story is very true and I have set a target that I am gonna whip out a design next week, even if it’s real crappy.

  5. “Men succeed when they realize their failures are preparation for their victories.” Keep daring greatly everyone!

    (by the way how are the 30-day challenges coming? Still on track?)

    Be well

  6. Sheila says:

    Hi there James,

    At the moment, your newsletter is the only one I read, and your website is the only one I pay good attention to. I plan on reading every article you have in your archives, and I have already gotten started on “Transform Your Habits” which is such an incredibly insightful read!

    As far as this article goes, the one thing I got from this is show up and do the work, because it really is about the small wins, small deposits, small improvements you put into your “skill bank” that ultimately get you to greatness.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Shodhan Hegde says:

    James Clear, I cannot thank you enough for sharing with us some hugely inspirational yet amazingly practical approaches to better oneself. Your articles speak volumes about the humanitarian in you and I think it’s truly commendable. Cheers to you and your work.

  8. Nicole Strawbridge says:

    Hey James just wanted to encourage you on your newsletters. I receive a few weekly health and wellness related emails and yours have become one of my favourite. Your writing is clear, concise, relevant and well researched. Your weekly habit of writing and practicing your ‘craft’ is paying off. So wanted to say thanks, your work is appreciated and valued.

    • Ross says:

      She’s right, James- I disagreed with your point #2 about writing- you put in the work and you DO come up with something of note, quite consistently. :-)

  9. Mandar says:

    Once again a practical article ! Many authors advise to be idealistically efficient, creative, brilliant etc but its always difficult to have these qualities in start up years. Hence its best to see accepting the gaps so that we can bridge them! Worth reading the article!

  10. Hi James

    What a fantastic piece …. Thank you for taking the time to research this and send it out to us all. This is exactly what I needed to hear as I look at what I have wrote and think I can barely string two sentences together … But I know I have the words inside me … So one step at a time and if it takes me 17 years to write anything noteworthy then that will be progress not perfection!

    Kind regards

    Christie :)

  11. Abhishek says:

    Great work. Very much appreciated.

  12. Salil says:

    James, appropriate article specially for people who dedicate their lives to work of personal transformation and bringing about a change in others lives.

  13. Don says:

    Ira Glass is a great example for all of us. Thanks for this post.

    Your use of the word “craftsman” reminds me of Cal Newport’s wonderful book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The title comes from a quote belonging to comedian, Steve Martin. Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, reveals the years of struggle, and practice, he went through while honing his craft. Both of these are great reads.

  14. Thanks, James, such a great reminder! I like the emphasis on your “taste,” which is like having a template for your own work. Because why DO I keep going, when I feel what is on the page is so pale and lifeless compared to the greats? I think I see the potential, and I see that if I keep going, practice practice practice, one day I will look at one of my stories and get the “ahh” that I get when I read a master. One can always hope. But better than hope is the daily plodding with this template in your pocket. Ahhh…thank you!

  15. Meg Sylvia says:

    Really, really great post, James. Super inspirational to see that the guys at the top didn’t just get a lucky break or become overnight successes 99.99% of the time – they were simply the ones who persevered through all of the not-so-glamorous times. A message all entrepreneurs should hear!

  16. Bill says:

    This timing of this post could not be better. Thank you James. I have been writing and performing for a couple of years and i have had several starts and stops. The reminder to re-center on the process is the solution to my frustration. Thank you again.

  17. Daniel Holl says:

    The post again shows how important it is to be consistently persistent. I think it’s crucial no matter which line of work you are in to focus on the process of getting a tiny bit better everyday within the scope of a big picture. Many small wins added up also amount to something really great.

  18. SJ Scott says:

    Thanks James,

    Sort of like what Gladwell says in Outliers, it takes one heck of a lot of time to truly be the master of a craft.

    I love the way you separate the skill of “knowing” what good is, and having a solid knowledge LONG before that mastery occurs.

    A great reminder to keep at it and slowly but surely that skill, and the opportunities will come. You just have to put in the time and the work.

  19. Wow, your work really helps me live. This may be one of my favorite posts. I left my safe and stable urban planning job to become a hypnotist & hypnotherapist because I had been a long-time client of hypnotherapist and feel in love with the process. There are many days that I feel discouraged, especially in a field as niche as this one (i.e. Good Lord, what have I done?!!!) As you write a lot about changing habits and perception, I wonder…have you looked into hypnosis before? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and would love to see a post from you on this subject.

  20. Holly says:

    Hi James,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights. I look forward to your columns and always feel inspired and more determined after reading them. You are an amazing person.

    I recently saw this quote and your column today reminded me of it, so thought I’d share…

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
    -Thomas A. Edison

    Thank you again for giving so much of yourself to help me and so many others.

    Signed,
    An admirer and fan!

  21. Thanks James! I’ve never missed a single post since signed on to your site and even managed to read all of them. What an inspiring article this is! It is so true that greatness is built from numerous small improvements for all work of life. Devil is in the details. But for me, I said, diamond is in the critical details!

  22. Laia Varona says:

    As a writer, I know that gap between taste and ability very well. I work every day to close it, but I can’t help feeling disappointed sometimes. One of the reasons because I struggle is because I usually fail to see the amount of work that was needed to create a quality result. When people are good at what they do, they make difficult things look easy, so when I’m reading a good book, my first reaction is to think that the autor wrote it in one go, effortlessly, without needing to stop to think if the way he was telling the story was the best or if he was choosing the right words. When that happens, I have to stop and remind myself that nobody is born knowing how to write bestsellers and that everyone needs to learn and practice.

    By the way, Stephen McCranie has an interesting comic about taste, too.

  23. Tanya says:

    Great article James! Just what I needed to hear today! :D Great podcast with Trish Blackwell too! She rocks!

  24. Anurag says:

    Great article! Inspires to take action and is succinct as well. Great work James.

  25. Lucas Arruda says:

    Thanks a lot of that piece.

    I’ve been following you for sometime (since mostly the beginning) and I’ve gotta say your writing is getting better and better. Your articles are just full of great content. I just love how you always include nice quotes, research papers and so on, and how you link them together.

    For me, it’s always been though to deal with the inside pressure I often demand myself for delivering awesome work. I always thought that kind of perfection is good, but it’s actually not. Like a really successful guy I know tell people: “Perfection is often a defect, because you never deliver.”. I guess he is right and I have to accept that my work is just not good enough to my standards right now, but will eventually reach that point where I can be really proud of. It’s just that the patient to get there is really tough. So, I try to think of that 10 yr silence time we all have to go through, and I think it’s a normal thing to struggle with that. It’s just not natural at the start, but if understand how it works and it has been working for all the successful people, then maybe we can have the commitment and patient to let our work grow/mature.

    Cheers,
    Lucas

  26. Rhonda says:

    I love you James Clear, it is as simple as that. You make an considerable effort to make some things in my life a lot easier through your wonderful articles. It’s time for me to say thank you. You make the difference you should be very proud of yourself and your achievements.

  27. Tunji says:

    Thanks James for another masterpiece.

  28. Ama Asubonteng says:

    Thanks James for this great piece. These struggles we go through are real and sometimes natural. Here in Ghana we jokingly call it “No Pain No Gain!” Bless You.

  29. Marie Nayaka says:

    “Developing skills that are as good as your taste comes down to habits” — brilliant. Great post, thanks James! Marie

  30. Sal Castillo says:

    James, thanks for sharing this. Your habit forming ideas are going to transform lives. For you to have learned this at a relatively young age is remarkable. I, like Ira, feel it took so long to learn to learn, but I was willing to do the work and continue to develop, what I think, are useful and transforming habits. I look forward to all your future newsletters.

Leave a reply