Present Ability≠Quality Of Creative Taste

Brain Pickings had an animated kinetic typography video of Ira Glass’ advice about how to succeed in creative work. Essentially he says when you are starting out to produce creative work, your taste is likely excellent but your execution is probably going to suck. You need to refine your work by exercising your abilities at every opportunity.

This topic has been on my mind quite a bit recently. I had a slightly new understanding about that advice we usually give to young people about entering a career in the arts: “Don’t do it unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else for the rest of your life.”

When that advice was first given to me, I interpreted it to mean that if there was any other career path that appealed to me, I should pursue it instead. I recently realized it also means you should be prepared to spend the rest of your life honing your skills through exploration and repetition.

Depending on your specific discipline, in every moment of your life, some part of your consciousness needs to be observing the interaction and behavior of everything around you-living things, light, sound, smells, movement, material properties, physics, speech, text, color etc,. Then you need to choose to take what you observed and make it part of your practice.

Perhaps it is just being the child of two teachers, but I don’t understand people who don’t want to learn a little something more each day. I suspect most people of an artistic temperament similarly have an underlying curiosity that drives them to ask, observe and experiment.

The thing that is tough is having patience with your own failings for weeks, months and years. I pursued certification in secondary education when I was an undergraduate and I remember that one of the things my cohort suggested for our training program was a refresher in grammar. Once we got up in front of the class, we realized we couldn’t properly teach it having ignored it for so long as students ourselves.

A couple weeks ago I properly used “fewer” rather than “less” in a sentence and a woman who just started teaching second grade about five years ago asked me about the grammar rules. There were some implications in her tone that she viewed me with some respect but also as a grammar nerd. I chuckled inside recalling being at uncertain about grammar rules when I was fresh out of college. I decided not to tell her that even though I had about 20 years on her, I really only felt like I started to understand many of the grammar rules in the last 8 years I have been writing this blog.

Now I worry that my writing is getting a little too stilted every time I go back to revise sentences to read “with whom/which.”

I am not trying to promote the pursuit of good grammar as something everyone should do. Nor am I trying to say it will take 30 years to attain. I have always been a voracious reader and have done a lot of writing throughout my life so I have had a lot of exposure. I am not sure when better grammar started to matter to me.

And I certainly don’t follow all the rules. <—-I will start sentences with "and" and will use the singular "they." At some point I realized better grammar would improve the quality of my blog posts and give me a better understanding of grammar and started to make incremental changes in my practice.

I recognized an important point in Ira Glass’ assurances that inability to express one’s creativity has no bearing on the quality of your taste. There are plenty of people who have great taste who have no ambitions to express it as an avocation or vocation and suffer no anxiety over it. It is only when we are frustrated at our inability to express ourselves that we suddenly decide there is a direct relationship between our creativity and quality of its manifestation.

No one would claim you couldn’t have a great vision for an opera simply because you didn’t speak Italian. You just wouldn’t be able to create a good opera in Italian without help. Even after a year or so of learning Italian, your opera probably wouldn’t be too good because your understanding of Italian would only be overlaid on your English language skills, sitting awkwardly atop them.

It is only after long involvement with Italian when the language becomes organic that you can finally effectively express your great vision in Italian. That original vision didn’t suddenly get better because you learned Italian. Italian just happened to be superior to English as a mode for expressing your vision and it naturally took awhile to develop your proficiency.

I am digging Brain Pickings these days. You should visit the site. If you can’t do that, then at least take 2 minutes to watch Ira Glass’ advice

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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