The Greatest Advice for Creatives I've Ever Heard

The Greatest Advice for Creatives I've Ever Heard

Where once information and advice was sparse, it's now abundant. With that come sits own problems in identifying that which is worth retaining, and that which is worth discarding. This is the greatest advice for up-and-coming creatives I've ever heard.

Some years back, when I had finished my MRes and decided against a PhD, I had to either proverbially defecate or get off the latrine when it came to a career in photography. I had earned a little money from it — albeit not a lot — and flirted with the idea of going out on my own and trying to make a career doing what I loved. I was faced with one of the most unhelpful false dichotomies I've encountered. On the one hand (and these hands were no where near equal, this hand was gargantuan and the other was like a tiny claw) I was told that photographers don't make any money. That there are far too many as it is, and the work is underpaid and rare. That everyone is a photographer these days and so professional photography will die out.

None of that side of the coin is demonstrably and unequivocally false, which gave it far too much credence. There's a fascinating piece by The School of Life addressing the question "where have all the creative jobs gone?" It's true, the number of creative positions is fewer than it once was and has been steadily heading that way for decades. However, this suggestion that my photography business was doomed from the offset was wrong for several reasons. Firstly, I had no intention on being just a photographer. I don't mean that to be condescending to people who are purely photographers, but rather I had my sights on a multi-faceted career right from the get-go. Secondly, it was mostly anecdotal evidence. It's true that photographers' average yearly income is reasonably low, but if there are such an abundance, it's almost impressive it's as high as it is. Particularly when you factor in that most will be self-employed.

On the other hand of the debate was an almost doe-eyed optimism which warmly encouraged you to follow your dreams, without care for circumstance or even the dreams themselves. Truly, both advice factions are largely useless. They each had flecks of truth and wisdom, but they felt true by virtue of luck rather than foresight. I did however receive two pieces of great advice. One was about diversifying your income streams, and that's an article for another day, but the other was more conceptual and applicable to all creatives. It is this well portioned soliloquy by famed radio broadcaster, Ira Glass.

There's an incredible amount of distilled wisdom in just two minutes, but the greatest advice for creatives — particularly those early on in their journey — involves his distinction between taste and ability. Every creative goes through a phase where they know what they like, they know why they like it, but they cannot create anything of the same caliber. During this stage of the creative journey, many — most even — will conceded and give in. Now, this isn't to say people outright quit what they're pursuing or enjoy, but rather that they no longer strive for greatness.

Without realizing it, this was true for me very early on. There was a notable difference between what I wanted to create and what I was creating. To add confusion to this, I was aware what was my best work, and what was lesser work, which can trick you in to this sense that your best work stays at that level; that the quality level is stagnant. It isn't. In fact, I now wholeheartedly believe that the work you aspire to, you can achieve the same quality with the right effort. That is, in Glass's words, you can bridge the gap between you and your tastes. Feeling like your work doesn't live up to what you want to create is perfectly normal. The difference between you and the people creating the work you aspire to is that when they were the wrong end of the gap, they kept working on how to bridge it.

I still want to create better quality work, and where I once strived to achieve some mythical checkered flag finish, finding myself suddenly firing on all cylinders, I now realize that I will forever move that goal further out of reach. In fact, I hope I never reach a sense of completion.

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13 Comments

Thanks Robert that was some fantastic and inspiring advice. I’m only just now striving to bridge the gap because for many years I never thought I could but I now realise that I can I just have to put in that hard work. Great article, keep it up!

David Cannon's picture

Really nice article. Thanks for this.

Owain Shaw's picture

This is a really great piece, Robert, and thanks for sharing the words of Ira Glass - they really are important words for creative ears to hear.

I've been doing Photography for almost fifteen years now, about half my life. I've taken a few wrong turns along my particular journey, I would say, and got lost in a few different dead ends but recently I've started producing work I'm really happy with ... the work I'm producing has started to allign with my taste, and it is indeed because I've started going out and working on my ideas. Rather than thinking my ideas weren't good enough, I'm working on fulfilling them and finding that the work I produce is good. It's hard to be happy with your work if you aren't making any work. It's also true that going out and making photographs with no sense of purpose or direction is unlikely to be a great success either, but when you have an idea of what it is you want to do, you have to get out and do it in whatever way you can.

If I may, I'd like to share just a couple of photographs from a current project documenting local farmland which provides much of the fruit and vegetables eaten in this country (and mainland Europe) and owes its productivity to the irrigation system installed in Medieval times by the Moors, part of which is being operated in one of the photographs. The other is of a farmer who still tends his fields with a horse.

(I'll be getting rid of the vignette, I've realised now - after many years - that I don't need it, my photographs are good enough without one ... but it's only been a very recent realisation!)

Oliver Saillard's picture

This article could not be written at a better time, that was exactly what I needed, right here, right now!

David Penner's picture

Can we stop using the phrase "a creative"? It just comes off as a snobby term for an artist.
When Googling "what is a creative?" This comes up

"A creative is an artist. Not just a painter or musician or writer. She is someone who sees the world a little differently than others. ... A creative is a thought leader. He influences people not necessarily through personality but through his innate gifts and talents."

This can actually apply to so many fields. Hell I work as a trades person working in the oil industry and this is our job every day. We have a problem and have to look at things differently to come up with a solution to fix the problem without hurting or killing anyone. I bet "creative" would be right pissed off if a bunch of trades people started calling themselves creatives for the work we do. We even take different personality and decision making tests at work to see where we can improve. Most people have a high score in the creative column just based on what we do for work.

David Pavlich's picture

I have to agree with David and maybe that's the curmudgeon in me. It sounds pretentious, boorish, elitist, uppity, any words to describe people that think their 'stuff' doesn't stink.

Robert K Baggs's picture

It wasn't a choice of term made to paint some grandiose picture or give belly rubs to certain readers, it was just utilitarian. I wanted to make it clear it was relevant to all those who create, not just photographers. OED's definition isn't anywhere near as the loaded one you found on Google and fits more in line with my intention: "A person whose job involves creative work." There are creative trades people I'm sure, and Glass's words might just apply to them too.

David Pavlich's picture

As to the article, there are a lot of photographers that make very good livings and they do it by separating themselves from the rest. A high end wedding photographer has to remain creative to continue that level of income. So being creative and making a great living from being creative is not only possible, it is hand in hand.

You have to have thick skin doing this. Your tastes may not be to everyone's liking. You may think the public will like what you do, but it doesn't always work that way. That's where you have to make the distinction between what makes you happy and what makes prospective customers happy if you plan to make a living from photography.

Jeremy Center's picture

I'd like to read more about the "multi-faceted career".

Robert K Baggs's picture

Interesting. I'm always looking for article suggestions. I'll add this to my list and I'll send you a message once it's published.

Jason Lorette's picture

This is very interesting...I recently realized that I worked and worked and worked to get to the 'ability' to create what I can today. However, once I "hung out the shingle", I focused more on getting clients, than getting better (as well). It's something I've been reflecting on recently and this piece definitely fits that vein in a timely way right now. (I too would like to hear more about these "multiple facets" you speak of. ;)

Joe Black's picture

I thought my pictures were killer when I started. Until I realised what great photography looked like. I look back and realise how my view of my work was so off. Its a learning process. Now I think there is no end to this quest of getting better and its forever evolving where the celling only gets higher.

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

Robert K Baggs's picture

One curve ball for me is that I used to love the photography of certain hobbyists in the communities I was in, and looking back, they weren't very good. Perhaps taste evolved, but couldn't agree more with the last line!