Nobody tells this to beginners

Special thanks to reader Peter Braverman, who this morning forwarded us the following quote from Ira Glass with the comment, “If you haven’t (and even if you have), you must see this. Truer words were never spoken, or written, or however it was they were delivered.”

From Ira Glass . . .
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that 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, and 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 awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”


Ira Glass is the host and producer of This American Life. Click here for the full original video (runtime 5:20).


This entry was posted in Editorial. Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to Nobody tells this to beginners

  1. Pamela Vozza says:

    That’s so true! In art school, I compared myself to everyone else and never measured up. My own work never measured up to the images in my head. I look at my early design work — work that pleased bosses — but that now embarasses me in its amateurness. But now! Every once in a while, lightning flashes and I produce something that amazes me, like I don’t even know where it came from! But I stand back and admire — I’m truly proud of it. If I had not persevered during those early learning, stumbling and doubting phases, I would not have the pleasure of creating — and helping people through my creative expressions — that I have now.

  2. Mike O says:

    This is so true!

    Malcolm Gladwell reinforces this notion in his book Outliers, in which he describes being an expert takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice. “. . . excellence at a complex task requires a minimum level of practice, and experts have settled on 10,000 hours as the magic number for true expertise. This is true even of people we think of as prodigies, such as Mozart.”

  3. David Harper says:

    Agreed. I’ve been a working professional for almost 41 years and still experience that frustration at times. Sure enjoy the work though! :)

  4. Kara says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!! Nobody EVER tells the beginners this! There are the books about success, wonderful design. The beginning, the hardest part — it seems left out. I wish someone had told me this, so thank you, since I’m at the beginning, for sharing this.

  5. cfmaurer says:

    This is an excellent post! It not only applies to design but almost any other achievement in life — you can never realize your true potential unless you just grind through the failure and bad stuff. It’s inevitable. The key is knowing, in advance, that you will need to see through your mistakes and underachievements. Each new day provides a new chance to create something a little better than yesterday. Thanks for this; it’s inspired me.

  6. Rachael says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is just what I needed to hear. As long as there is hope, I can keep going.

  7. Rebecca says:

    This is the most reassuring paragraph! I want to frame it and put it in every room I work in.

  8. Jon Hoy says:

    Once again Before & After brings us true words of wisdom. My love affair with Before & After started with a charter subscription. It just keeps getting better and better . . .

  9. Carolyn says:

    Thank you. I had just come back from a particularly brutal meeting which had left me filled with self doubt when I read this post. It was just the message I needed today.

  10. John Driscoll says:

    It seems to have taken me FOREVER to get to a place where I’m comfortable with the level of my design work. I also wish I came across these words of wisdom 15 years ago.

    This will be incredibly helpful for me as I start a beginning oil-painting class this Thursday! It can apply to everything.

  11. Andrea says:


  12. Tony Gibson says:

    Me too!

    So many times I watch magical interpretations of a brief while my ideas lag behind — not because I’m useless, but because I haven’t (yet) had the breadth of experience of others. But I’m getting there! Before & After opens glimpses of inspiration that open my mind and allow me to grow!

    More please, guys!

  13. Forrest says:

    Speaking of beginners:

    I am a beginner. I love Before & After, but I sense that it assumes some level of knowledge or skill, which I don’t think I have. So, how do I get to the point that I can do the things in the tutorials and the lessons? Is there a Before & After for beginners?

    • Craig says:

      I’m completely self-taught. Read EVERYTHING you can lay your hands on. Get software and learn it THOROUGHLY. Experiment to your heart’s content. I found getting the most advanced manuals possible and getting inspired by what could be was the most important thing. Beginner’s manuals inspire beginner stuff. When I first learned Quark, I must have stared at that blank screen for months. When I switched from Quark to InDesign several years later, even though I knew my stuff, I still had that feeling. Jump in. DO SOMETHING. I think that’s the hardest part. Don’t ever let a setback stop you. Keep at it. It’s the only way. You WILL find a solution. Old programming trick: Don’t look at it as one huge thing. Look at it as smaller and smaller things added together. Solve one thing, and it seems to build. It works for a lot of different things, not just graphics. Good luck. You’ll do fine!

  14. Mary Baum says:

    Oh yes. That’s why, after 30 years, when people around me — my family, my sales folks, and my more-generous-with-compliments-than-budget clients accuse me of perfectionism, of wanting to be awesome, I look at what I’m doing and think, “But at the moment I’m just going for barely goddamned adequate . . .”

    • Christian Nelson says:

      “. . . I’m just going for barely goddamned adequate.” . . . I love that . . . ha ha ha . . . it really is the way it is sometimes.

  15. Kimbrough says:

    Thanks . . . I needed that. It also applies to starting over. I am just getting back into photography and design. The things you can’t do now that you could when you were younger are not because of aging, but because you stopped doing them. If you are starting again, you need to have a vision and get your eyes, brain, pencil and paper, stylus and graphic tablet, keyboard shortcuts and so on back in sync. When this all comes together the work starts to flow, and the excitement carries you through the awkward time, which is shorter the second time around.

  16. Jimmy W. says:

    This is exactly why our site is under construction . . . “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.” I’m curious to know the story about once the gap has been closed . . . where do the ambitions go then?

  17. KathyKT says:

    I’m still learning this, but I learned it first when in grad school, from a colleague from Thailand, who told me that there the professors asked for many, many more versions of a design solution than we were required to provide. “Quantity begets quality” is one lesson that I learned from my friend named Apple. And I’m still relearning it every day!

  18. Randy Martin says:

    To quote Renoir:

    “I am still going through an experimental stage. I’m not happy, and I keep scrubbing out and scrubbing out again. I hope this mania will pass . . . I’m like the children at school; the clean page has to be filled with good writing, and splash –- a mess! I’m still making messes, and I’m forty years old.”

    I’m more than two decades past that and I’m just getting around to making stuff that’s pretty good. But I’m also certain that my best work is before me. If only I can live that long.

  19. Holly F says:

    Well said! And once you get there, when the gap closes, technology changes, or you start working in a new medium, and you have more to learn.

  20. Jay Leek says:

    Nice post!

    Experience doesn’t always make the solution come faster, but it gives me the comfort of knowing that it WILL come. A state of anxiety is rarely conducive to problem solving.

  21. Doug Mathews says:

    As a very, very, very long-time Before & After person and photographer for 40 years, I can attest to the wisdom of this advice. Only occasionally do one of my photos really meet my vision and expectations. To people really trying to do their best in whatever endeavor, this principle applies. Thank you John, again.

  22. Liz Gorski says:

    Ira Glass’s advice advice is spot on. Learning to play the violin is an act of faith; you squeak and scrape for years, believing in that special day when you sound good. And if you don’t quit, that day will come. Art takes time.

    Your book is wonderful, John. I love the clarity of your message. (I’m teaching myself InDesign . . . there’s a new logo and business card in my future!)

  23. Mary P says:

    Wow! Design work was a major career change for me at a very unfriendly time and age for a career change. That was a few years ago and I am still a beginner — but a notch or two better than when I started. This came at exactly the right time — thank you!!

  24. Kleeks says:

    As a lifelong swimmer, I often use swimming as a metaphor for a lot of what I do. I remember trying to teach myself to be a bilateral swimmer (breath on both sides). It took over six months before I could swim without thinking about the strokes. Currently I am trying to teach myself how to use the Wacom tablet. Originally a New Year’s resolution, here it is April and it is still awkward . . . but I keep trying. Many fields have a “breakin’ in” period . . . teachers, physicians, etc. However, art school you graduate and it’s . . . “now what?” Good topic, and good comments!

  25. WingsDove says:

    These words are spot on. It does take time and practice. That is why there were once apprentices and journeymen in all arts and trades. We should allow newbies time to learn the craft — and let them know it will take time to become experts, no matter how talented they are.

  26. Amanda says:

    Wow! I’m going to sound like a broken record when I say, “That’s so true!” I do have good taste. I know what looks good and what absolutely doesn’t. I have the eye, but not all the skills. My work from a few years ago is horrible. I still get frustrated and sometimes despise the fact that I cannot get to what “looks good” on a particular project. I have come a long way, though, and love Before & After. Not sure how I stumbled across this excellent resource just a couple of years ago, but it is amazing.

  27. David says:

    Oh yeah. It’s all so true. I’ve only been designing for about 10 years, and although I’ve had some instances of “breaking out,” I still get frustrated that I haven’t been able to sustain it. I’ll get there. As a songwriter and quilter, I know all too well how this quote applies across the creative spectrum.

  28. We all need to give ourselves permission to be beginners, no matter what task is at hand.

    The notion that you go to school and graduate doing gorgeous, thoughtful stuff doesn’t mesh with reality. It takes a while to find your groove, to find our own design (or any other voice), to find your style, and it unveils itself over time.

    Designs also improve the more you hang out with other designers or expose yourself to neat things in the world. Design is a reflection of what you have the courage to drink in . . .

    Good post! G.

  29. Jim Sweas says:

    Add this to the Glass/Braverman words of wisdom . . .

    Now in my fifth decade of this addictive pastime, I share with everyone the same advice: Remove all restraints. Become a master of the verbal as well as the visual. You are not just an art director. Not just a copywriter. You are a communicator with three simple goals. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” the output of our craft can be summed up in three verbs: Explain. Persuade. Motivate.

    And in the pecking order of whom to please, you are always at the top of the list. Not your loved ones. Not your adoring fans. Not your employer. Not even your client. When you know you’ve given your best, that feeling is its own reward.

  30. Dee says:

    This posting almost had me in tears! Since I was little, all I have ever wanted to be was an artist. I found quite early that the traditional mediums (painting, drawing, sculpting) never worked for me. Facing many “well-intentioned” talks that “suggested” that my purpose in life might be down another road, I left those dreams behind.

    Fast forward 20 years and I decided three years ago that I was going to try again, this time with my new love — graphic design. It seemed like the perfect fit. A melding of my love for design and my affinity for technology. Foolishly, I believed that because I decided to embrace my love, it would all fall into place. The truth is, my work has never disappointed me more, my creative eye has never been so clouded, and like a faithless love, my inspiration has deserted me.

    I am not professionally trained; everything I know I have gleaned through trial and error, Amazon and Chapters, eight-hour sessions in front of my computer and from the guidance of true professionals like John. I carry my books and my flash drive around like a pacifier and a blankie hoping to calm my growing sense of panic and entice my passion and inspiration back out to play.

    No one ever tells you of the nights where you can actually feel the deadline breathing down your neck and all that you seem to be able to produce looks like something that belongs on a kindergarten classroom wall. Of the times when your doubt murmurs insistently in your ear while you try hard not to let them see you sweat.

    Thanks John, Before & After, and for all those who have an encouraging word . . . for not forgetting the newbies, the fledglings, the old-timers, the self-starters and the completely clueless! I am actually printing this posting out and sticking on my board over my desk . . . it will be something to keep me going at 4 o’clock in the morning!

  31. Eric Moore says:

    Wow. I am really comforted by the fact that I am not alone in this. I’ve been a designer for 25 years and somehow I always end up feeling like maybe I’m just not very good at this. Sure I’ve been able to sell work to people who’ve said they were really satisfied, but I always end up feeling like they don’t have any real style or taste. I’d say 90 percent of the time my self-confidence takes a soaring leap out of the window before I even get halfway through a project. I have dozens of print pieces, and I don’t think I would seriously consider putting any of them in the book of my life’s work in design. And for some reason I keep staying with it. Being a designer or an artist of any kind is many times a very lonely place. You against you. Quitting never seems to be an option, although I think of it often, but as long as there is a possibility of reaching a self-satisfaction or a self-awareness, a sense of being in your element, then it’s worth soldiering on. Thanks Ira and John for posting — I needed this. And it looks like others did too.

  32. Tom Semmes says:

    Though it is true that it takes a long time for one’s reality to catch up to one’s ambitions or taste, I am not sure that nobody tells this to beginners. I am sure that I was told this many times but just ignored it. I chose to blame my skills or my attitude or my upbringing. Finding out that to get good at something just takes a lot of time and work is tough to hear. I think that we just blot that message out and choose to believe that some magic pill exists somewhere if we only knew where it was. Just human nature I guess.

  33. Monica says:

    Wow, this is so true. I still have my portfolio of design work from my early years, and every piece is ROUGH! Filled with bevels and embosses, shadows and all kinds of tricks to make me look like a more-experienced designer than I was. My dad saw the potential and said, “I’m giving you a job as a web designer; you’re destined for this.” And now hundreds of websites later I try to teach my employees the same trick — that it’s all about developing your own process to get the creative out. The planning and the crappy designs that get you to the good one are not a waste of time — they’re the best time you can spend!

  34. Dean says:

    A great reminder John. It explains why when you look back at your earlier work you cringe, thinking, “We charged MONEY for that! . . . oh my god, how could we ;-)

  35. Steve says:

    I arrived late to this party. Reading the previous 35 posts and how strongly Ira’s words resonated with every one impacted me as much as did his words.

    Somewhere around Wow, that’s so true! #22, this question popped into my head: If everyone who has been at this creative game for the requisite 10,000 hours either validates Ira’s quote — or is validated by it — what can be learned from that? How does this new meta-knowledge that a significant leg of the creative journey is about closing the gap between our taste and our talent improve our direction or our progress?

    What it validates for me is that John, as a teacher, does a masterful job pointing out the wisdom of one approach over another, by pointing out what I now realize are elements of good taste: elegance, balance, consistency, alignment, flow, and many I have still to learn at the 5,000-hour mark along my own journey.

    Moral of the story: Mind the gap (as you would in the London Underground). You will arrive at your destination the better for it.

  36. anand philip says:

    Absolutely true —

    Ties in the principle of the “dip” with the psychology of creativity.

    You cease to be creative when you cease to create. Keep at it, and masterpieces will emerge.


  37. Brian Diehm says:

    Thank you, John McWade, for making us all aware of this passage! We all need a breath of encouragement sometimes, and this not only gives it, but explains just why. Affirmation appreciated; the spur to go on and do and do and do is not only needed, but gives us the assurance that by doing, we get there.

  38. Leslie Yang says:

    I saw this video a couple years ago as I was starting out as a graphic designer as well as showed it to some fellow students during a class as a source of inspiration. Such a good reminder to be resilient during those times when our gorgeous vision doesn’t match the reality we’ve created with our hands. Every time I feel discouraged with my designs I think of what Ira Glass said and I push forward.

    Onward and upward!

  39. Monit says:

    That is totally true. I have been through it and I am still improving, so it’s a progressive process. Only those who have perseverance and zeal to do better every day make it through, so keep fighting, keep getting better every day :)


  40. Mats says:

    A true description of how it really is. I for one prefer that nobody tells this to beginners: Perseverance is a key quality that separates the experts from the hobbyists. Setbacks are part of the individual “ripening” and should be experienced personally. The knowledge of being able to overcome such crises is indeed valuable and gives strength for future imponderabilities!

  41. Peter Reibel says:

    True. True.

    I took time, but I’m happy to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  42. Olivier says:

    So true, so good to read!

    Have started a new career at 40, and yes, I am very demanding with myself so never satisfied by my works. But I can notice a improvement after two years of practice. Probably seven or eight more years, and I think I shall be more happy with myself! ;-)

    A friend of mine recently told me it requires about 10 years to become a true graphic designer (good or bad), with all that’s involved in it.

    Thank you very much for this sharing.


  43. Phyllis T. says:

    For me as a design instructor there’s the flip side: Most beginners don’t want their design weaknesses pointed out to them because they are so excited to play with all those Adobe toys. Yes, they can create almost-cool stuff, but whether it serves the need for the client is another story. If they fail to listen they won’t be asked to design for that client again.

  44. Murt Howell says:

    Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan once said: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I think there is a lot of truth in that. Not that you resign yourself to being something less, but that you recognize what your strengths and talents are and make the most of them. Sorry if this sounds kinda hippy-like, but if you accept who you are and where you fit into the scheme of things, it makes the next 30 of 40 years easier to deal with. Any of us in a creative field “if we are genuine and serious” will always question the quality of our work. That might never change, so just accept it as a curse all creative people live with, and move on. Although I’ve studied graphic arts, I’m not a graphic artist and never will be. Actually, I’m a technical writer, but I use a lot of creative tricks to make what I produce enticing to readers, easy to use, but most of all, effective in achieving the intended purpose. (I am still stealing design ideas from the first issues of Before & After.) It’s been over 30 years since I was at the College of Art, but one thing has stuck in my mind because I heard it so often from instructors (who were also working in the field): “This isn’t an award winner, but . . .” as if that was the measure of success. (And even they felt the need to add a disclaimer to their work.) It’s nice to win awards because everyone needs positive feedback, but we are not in this for competition. We are here to help our clients achieve their goals. Do the best job you can, build on your experiences, but be true to who you are. Never give up if you really love doing this stuff “the Beatles were playing together for years before they became famous.”

  45. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this! I am just starting out this year, and I have moments of brilliance, but I also have moments that are disappointing. And it feels like there are just so many talented (and untalented) people, there is no space for someone still learning.

    When you hit that mountain, and the only way to get over it is to climb, you do need to hear that you’ll get to the other side. Even if along the way you pass a lot of bodies that didn’t make it.

    I know I may not make it. And that my definition of “making it” might change along the way. But that dream of getting to the other side makes me happier than anything else. Maybe just being able to hold that dream for a while is enough.

  46. Kerry Clark says:

    Great quote. A lot of wisdom. And I find even the comments to be inspiring! The process and art of creating is a divine mystery. But worth the work.

  47. Jerry S says:

    Thank you again, John McWade, for your wise instruction and sharing this post. Lifts the weight of self-doubt and gives an explanation for the “process.” Okay, then, I’m not the only one!

    And thank you everyone for the inspiring comments.

    Reminds me of a video I watched yesterday (thanks to Chuck Green): A tribute to master logotype designer Doyald Young.

    At the end of the video he says, “There is really no secret to what I do; it’s just hard work and observation.”

  48. Didier says:

    OMG! . . . I needed to hear this so badly. Thank you thank you THANK YOU SO MUCH! It’s these kind of words that pull you back from that verge of quitting. Again, thx a bunch!

  49. shirl stewart says:

    I read The Artist’s Way 10 years ago, and it really helped me. There are always challenges to being creative. Rest time is good, and dream of new ideas along the way. Don’t give up; it will come back in small doses.

  50. After reading these comments, I went back and hit website links for each seasoned and newbie responder. Lots of talent represented in this small space. Apparently, it’s true that no one can relate to our never-ending struggles quite the same as a fellow designer/writer. Thanks, John, for providing such a refreshing forum.

  51. Kathleen says:

    “What I want to do is confoundedly difficult, yet I do not think I am too high.” — Van Gogh.

    Just keep going. You can’t fail if you don’t quit. :-)

  52. Oh, how true it is . . . and this is the first time I’ve come across someone who articulated this so well and so honestly . . . and I feel this every time I look at my past work and find things that are not right in the design . . . and regret that I didn’t see those wrong things while I was designing that piece . . . but then I happily realize that I have grown a wee bit as a designer, and that’s real comforting . . .

  53. Roger Chan says:

    Thank you very much! I’m a beginner, and I was encouraged after reading it! Now I know what to do.

  54. Donna Berry says:

    I am a writer, and I still feel like a beginner in my 60s — this is a great post, and I thank you you for it.

  55. I have to say that I am relieved to hear that this is a natural occurence. I get so frustrated because I feel like my work is just ok, still seeming to be missing something. I look forward to continuing on in my journey of becoming and growing as a designer. Thanks for the encouragement!

  56. lesli DeVito says:

    It took me 30 years to get to this point. For me, it had everything to do with just doing Art for art’s sake, because without art I am lost, like in a boat without a paddle. Miraculously . . . the intention with which it was created . . . translates, and my work is being bought and loved, and I am complete.

  57. George DelGiorno says:

    I have been telling myself this for years, and intellectually knowing the truth of it, but seeing it in print and reading these other comments certainly helps to cement the message. It definitely is the same in all things. I had a soccer coach tell me, “You’re either getting better or worse, nobody stays the same.” And when I was first learning how to play an instrument I noticed that the journey is not a mountain slope, but a series of plateaus where you keep thoughtfully grinding away until it clicks and you reach the next. Of course as you get better those plateaus get longer and longer, requiring that much more perserverence to reach the next. Not to mention the steps back down for those periods where you’re distracted and the thoughtfulness goes out the window. I still (after over ten years professionally) am not satisfied with my work as an artist until months later if I look back at something and I can say oh, that part was pretty good. My feeling is often similar to a famous writer I once heard interviewed. The host asked, “Do you like writing?” and after a thoughtful pause he replied, “I like having written.”

  58. elizabeth says:

    Thank you, thank you. A thousand thank-yous for telling me this. You have no idea how grateful I am of reading this.

  59. Jack Sturm says:

    Being in a cultural wasteland and starting career #3 has just been made easier with your observation about beginners. I was a professional musician in my first life and completely understand about the timeframe of frustration before “getting it.” I had forgotten that lesson. Thank you for reminding me that patience pays creative dividends.

  60. PP says:

    Thank you so much. This article saved me. Today, I wasn’t getting my design right, and I was losing hope — thinking I can’t design. But this article acted like a magic — it encouraged me to carry on and helped me gather myself. Now, I am back to normal. I am no more hopeless. Million thanks!

  61. Tia says:

    I’m encouraged to know that most of us are like the rest of us . . . that it’s okay to have terrible design days; it doesn’t mean we have stopped being good designers or being creative. And I like the comment that says, just keep at it and it will happen.

    It is so similar to a surfer’s endless search for the perfect wave — they don’t come in at every set, but they do come, just enough to keep the surfer returning again and again, honing skills, observation, timing, becoming better at it, more at ease, understanding the conditions and the seasons. All the best to you all — create and inspire!

Comments are closed.