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:
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.
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 book Atomic Habits.
If you haven't already read it, you can download a copy here.