We all struggle to create good work. Work that feels connected, work that is meaningful, work that meets our sense of self-potential, work that moves us towards our aspirations. No matter what stage you are in in your creative development, that sense of what you make not quite being where you think it should be will remain.
Ira Glass has a fantastic perspective on this that he describes as “The Gap”. “The Gap” is essentially the space between where your work is and where you want it to be. You know what “good work” looks like, you just can’t seem to produce at that level.
“most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.”Ira Glass – Ira Glass on Storytelling
If you have ever read a book, looked at a photograph, stood in front of a painting, and thought to yourself, “F@%$, I wish I had made that” then you have experienced “The Gap”. Ira focuses on those at the beginning of their creative journey but this feeling does not go away, ever.
It is a normal phenomenon for anyone who is serious about creating meaningful work. Despite the anxiety it may generate, recognizing “The Gap” is actually a positive sign. It is not about ego or competition or being “better or less than”. It is about investment. Investment in your work, investment in yourself, understanding the potential of what you are trying to create, and trying to fulfill that potential to the best of your ability.
For most people, in most domains, that tension does not exist. It is quite possible to simply appreciate something that is going on beyond “The Gap” and not worry about closing the distance between what you like and what you create.
I can appreciate the athletic skill and brutality of a great mixed martial arts fight while simultaneously having no desire to close the gap between my lack of skills and knowledge and the mastery of the fighters I see performing.
In other domains I not only see what is happening across “The Gap” but I want to do anything I can to got to that place.
How do we best get there?
Glass has some advice that isn’t wrong but isn’t exactly actionable.
“the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work”Ira Glass – Ira Glass on Storytelling
Got it. Do lots of work!
It begs the questions; how do we do a huge volume of work? What kind of work should we be doing? How much is a huge volume exactly? How do we know that the work we are doing today will move us in the direction we want to be moving to close the gap? What if “The Gap” changes?
For a very few, simply producing and producing and producing is enough. Through luck or opportunity or force of personality, they create not just enough stuff but enough of the right stuff to bridge the gap and move them in a meaningful direction towards their aspirations.
For the rest of us, simply producing “huge volumes of work” does not work and it is not because of a lack of talent or willpower or discipline, or work ethic. If you’ve ever found yourself exhausted from the work you make but still feeling like that gap isn’t closing or is even getting bigger then you understand what I mean.
The solution? It sounds technical and nerdy and not very poetic but the best way I have found to close “The Gap” and move your work forward in a consistent way is through a system of project design.
Learning how to effectively design and implement projects is a learned skill that can supercharge your development like nothing else.
Will you be creating huge volumes of work? Absolutely, but it will be work focused in a way that allows for consistent growth without the burnout that happens when you feel like you are doing lots of work but not making progress.
Project design as part of a cycle
Intention design gives you a focused direction, project design moves you forward in that direction and reflection lets you track your progress and keeps you aligned with that direction.
Your Intentions are a mental commitment to your interests, your projects will become the manifestation of that commitment.
Defining what a project is
Projects are the structures in which we organize actions that move us forward in alignment with our intentions.
I have seen projects described as steppingstones across a river (the Gap) or as holds on a climbing wall you leverage to get to the top.
I like to think of projects as stars within galaxies of interest.
If our interests and aspirations are galaxies to be explored, then our projects are the stars within those galaxies whose gravitational wells we are using to catapult ourselves around in intentional and meaningful ways.
Some of these stars are large, some are small, we orbit some for a long time, we orbit others for less time, but they all help us move in an intentional direction.
The great thing is that these “stars” are something you get to design yourself.
A bit of a warning!
When designed and implemented well, projects can catapult your development, learning, skills acquisition, and creativity forward like nothing else.
When created arbitrarily, project planning wastes time and creates resistance for your work and practice. If you have ever felt like you spend more time planning than doing, then you understand why people often avoid the whole process.
To avoid wasting time and “procrastiplanning” you can start by getting some clarity about the fundamental qualities of a project.
Projects are discrete
This means they have a beginning and an end. They differ from habits, practices, intentions, and visions which have no defined endpoint.
Projects are designed around achieving defined outcomes
We are organizing action to achieve some specific desired state of being or to create some specific artifact. These will help define the endpoint of the project.
Projects are scalable
Projects can be small, large, simple, or complex. They can be designed around the activity of one person or hundreds.
This is good and bad. It is good because we can leverage project design in a multitude of ways and vary the scope of what we are trying to do to suit our intentions.
It can be bad because the larger the scope, the more complex and rigid the project design can become.
We will avoid overcomplicating our project designs by borrowing heavily from Agile Project Design methodologies and frameworks in the next article.
Your first action step
For now, pick one intention you want to make progress with. Feel free to read my last few articles on intention design if you are feeling unsure about your intentions.
Once you have your intention in mind be sure to write it down in your sketchbook or journal. In the next article, we will start designing a project that will move you forward in alignment with your intention as we start to close “The Gap” between where you are and where you want to go.
Have questions? Join us for answers.
If you have any questions, comments or just want to discuss project design, “the Gap”, creativity, education, or what it takes to live a viable creative life then I hope you will join me and hundreds of fellow artists, designers, educators, and professional creatives within the Artnerd Society community.
Artnerd Society is a free education-focused community empowering creatives to re-define what a viable, meaningful, creative life looks like. More information at https://www.artnerdsociety.com.
References and Influences
glass, ira. (n.d.). Ira Glass on Storytelling [Video]. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from https://vimeo.com/22972267