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The Taste-Skill Gap
Week 20 of Founding Typogram
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I have been following a screenplay writer for years. She got well-known for her talk show appearance, which recruited me as a fan. I followed her podcast, read all the short essays she wrote, and watched all the talk shows that featured her. Oddly enough, I never watched any shows that she wrote the screenplay for, and she has written a few.
I am most drawn to her podcast where she shares her favorite movies and why she likes them. She effortlessly recorded them with minimal editing, usually by herself, occasionally with a friend. As a screenplay writer, she talked in detail about why certain scenes in a movie work and what details make them great — it heightened my viewing experience and made these movies better than how I previously perceived them by myself. If I have to compare that to something I am familiar with, she is a very good design crit. While most people can look at a design and tell if they like it or not, she has eyes for the design details and can pinpoint what made these designs great — be it the font choice and its historical background that makes them fit, or the color contrast that ensures your eyes travel to the designated spot via a designed route. She has phenomenal taste in cinema.
When her latest show launched a few weeks ago, I felt compelled to catch up as her fan who had never watched any of her work in her primary profession. My viewing experience is puzzling — the show she wrote is not very good. While watching it, I constantly reflect on what she said about other great films, what to do and not to do to make them, and how her show didn’t follow these guidelines. Her podcast talks about when to leave it blank and express emotion through silence; her show fills these blanks with spoken words of how the character feels. She criticized the over-usage of voice-over narration and how it takes the audience away from the immersive experience of living the story; her show started each episode with long voice-over narration and embedded more in the midst. Even when her show is doing what her admired movies were doing, such as a present and past dual-track structure, her execution is subpar in comparison.
How can she have all the knowledge and good taste but still fail to execute a great work of her own? It was not long before I realized I was overly invested in this question. She is still very successful - the screenplay that she spent five years writing was filmed and launched with massive viewership, and I feel happy as her fan. I am overly emotional over this because I am projecting my pain onto her — the pain of having good taste but not the skill.
I have been struggling to design a satisfying landing page for my own startup Typogram; not only is it taking longer than my sprint goal allows, but I also dislike everything I have poured onto the canvas. I have been a designer for years — the entirety of my professional life. I teach design at a prestigious design school in their graduate program, telling my students what good design is and how to make good design is what I do. But when it comes to myself, I have always been struggling to like my own work — they are not good enough. The gap lies in that I have good taste; I look at great design work every day to train my taste, but I don’t have the equivalent skill to make these great works myself. If I didn’t have good taste, I probably would be happier because I would not be able to tell why my work is subpar. The better taste that I have, the bigger the gap between taste and skill, the more miserable I will feel.
When I shared how I feel with my cofounder Hua, she reminded me that every creative feels this way inevitably. Indeed she is right. Having good taste always predates obtaining the skills, and there it comes — the Taste-Skill Gap. Ira Glass has a famous quote on this phenomenon:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners; I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. 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. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. 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. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Do you feel the gap sometimes? How do you deal with the disappointment that it brings? Let me know by commenting below.
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