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Feb 13 2013

When Even “Better” Is the Enemy

Jay Smooth has a new video up. As usual, it’s excellent. Unusually, it’s also a bit personally painful to watch.

There are some people, I think, who never have this problem, who never see the urge to be better get in the way of producing solid work. I doubt they get much better at what they’re doing.

I think there are more of us who just push through, like Smooth is doing here, and do what they need to do regardless of the doubt. Sometimes we’re able to get past it, look back at what we did, and thumb our noses at those internal haters. Sometimes we take the risk of putting our work and ourselves out there even as we hear those voices, because that’s just what it means to strive and create.

A lot of us, of course, get overwhelmed by the voices, whether all the time or just occasionally when our energy or risk tolerance is low. We stop what we were doing or don’t do what we want to try because we don’t want to risk proving the haters right.

Next time that happens to you, though, watch the video. Realize that it happens to people like Jay Smooth too. Then see what he produces even with those haters banging on the inside of his head. Is it not worth taking the risk?

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Try writing a book:

    “This is boring, no one will be interested in what you’re writing, dear god I’m falling asleep reading what I wrote.”
    “You’re an idiot, this part is no good, there’s a gaping plot hole, there’s a gaping plot hole, oh look you wrote that section before.”
    “This book will never make best seller, let alone any seller, don’t even bother, people will buy it cause they want to be nice, not cause they care about it.”

  2. 2
    Joe Z

    Boy, have I been feeling this lately.

  3. 3
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    When my band released our album, which was 2 years of painstaking work in the making, it got a zero stars review from the local arts paper and the review contained such immortal lines as “What the fuck were they thinking?” and “This sounds like it was recorded on a Fisher Price machine.” There’s a reason I never bothered finishing that solo album….

  4. 4
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Oh yeah. I’m feeling it with you Kat.

    “How could anyone read more than one page? *Nothing* is happening.”
    “Oh you think that’s clever? Just pick up and read any one sentence of [Awesome Author] and see how pathetic you are.”
    “Booooring.”
    “You might as well quit right now. You know it’s not going to get any better.”
    “That? That is a total failure. You achieved exactly zero of your goals in writing that. And it’s all really stupid too.”

    Meh. Back to the story I’m writing.

  5. 5
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @Ibis3:

    I’ll read your book when you’re done, and you can read my book when I’m done, and then we can commiserate on how badly we botched our attempts at making interesting writing :D

  6. 6
    sueinnm

    Ibis and Katherine,

    It never gets better, either. I’ve been a New York published pro novelist for 20 years. I still say all those things to myself every day. I’ve lost 3/4 of my income after being dumped by my publisher for insufficient profits, and now am writing stuff I don’t like to earn at least a little money. But now I’ve begun a new genre I love. The voices are always there, though, even more when I love what I’m writing. I don’t read reviews, read in my own genre or let myself think of the greater success of writers who’ve come after me and are now getting recognition for stuff I was writing 20 years ago.

    But I push on, because at the end of the day, in spite of all the pain, I love what I do. I was “born” to do it. And because I’m a professional, and this is my job. Hater voices and all.

  7. 7
    sueinnm

    Oh, and there’s a French saying my husband (Quebecois) has quote to me, and I try to remember it: “Best is the enemy of good.”

  8. 8
    Strider

    Wow, thanks for this! Really great to see we’re not alone!

  9. 9
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Ha! Sounds like a deal. I’ve put aside my book for a bit to try working on some shorter pieces–I’m thinking some quick feedback and (hopefully) something in the way of lucre will give me some encouragement. With the book, I discovered I bit off more than was easily chewed in one sitting, if you know what I mean.* But I’m hoping to pick it back up for maybe one day a week or an hour a day or something. When I’m done, I’ll give you a shout. :D

    *And I think you do–worldbuilding, many characters, consistency. Exactly. (Though my book takes place in a dystopian-not-very-far-in-the-future US, rather than a whole other universe, as I believe yours does, which makes some things easier, some things more difficult.)

  10. 10
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    The voices are always there, though, even more when I love what I’m writing.

    Isn’t this the truth? When you love it, you’re more attached, more emotionally invested, more afraid of crashing and burning.

    I keep having to tell myself that doing and failing is more worthy than doing nothing. Also, the sooner I finish, whether a failure or not, the sooner I can get on to doing something even better.

  11. 11
    Marcus Ranum

    The fun thing about motivation is something I learned a while ago: you can reason about what drives you. I know this sounds obvious, but when I started asking myself, “what, exactly, is fun about doing this?” it sure helped me clarify my own agenda and understand where my energy levels came from on various topics. I realized that some things I enjoy doing randomly and haphazardly, and other things very precisely. When I do photography, I allow myself to get sloppy if I feel like it, when I do wood-work, I deliberately decide for each project how good it has to be, and when I’m sewing a prop or costume I use hot glue or whatever it takes to make it look approximately decent.

    Understanding what drives you helps you drive yourself better!

  12. 12
    Marcus Ranum

    Deciding what are your criteria for success, in a given area, is really crucial. When he talks about having the 2 little haters (awesome!) he’s touching on one of the things I find can really jack you up: if your success criteria are mutually contradictory. That happens a lot more often than people realize! Let me give you an example: you can follow your own path, or you can follow the popular path – sometimes they’re not the same thing. Sometimes they are. Suppose you paint, and you like to paint scary dark images of clowns in ruined buildings – well, it’s probably not going to be as popular as Thomas Kinkade. If you don’t like that it’s not popular, it’s not Kinkade’s fault, or Kinkade’s fans’ fault – it’s that you chose to follow your own muse and, more power to you, your muse led you off the beaten path. That’s OK. But if where you wanted to be was the beaten path, then that was a contradictory goal. I’ve seen artists hammer themselves to bits over this problem – do you want to be successful (“a sell-out”) or march to the beat of a different drummer (“edgy”)? Of course we want both but sometimes it’s not realistic. If your objective is to have your art all over the place, you have to choose a medium that is high output! Etc. Smooth is hanging himself up on the goals of being both interesting/funny and honest – well, those aren’t exactly opposed goals but they’re not as easy as being vapid/funny or intense/honest.

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    When you love it, you’re more attached, more emotionally invested, more afraid of crashing and burning.

    And the rewards for success are comparably greater. If you write something emotionally divested to protect yourself, and it is successful and popular, you may never get to know if people would have loved what you really loved if you’d exposed that, and instead you’ve learned that they love a lie.

  14. 14
    Duke Eligor

    This happens all the time with foreign language. That little hater is the one that says, “Wow, you didn’t understand a word of that. How many years did you waste studying this language?” It’s one of the reasons that I still meet some people who have been studying English for decades, are fluent by any native speaker’s casual assessment, yet still claim “my English is really bad.”

    It’s the problem of improvement vs. being “better.” When we set our own standards and goals, we live up to them and improve. When we let others set the standards for us and we feel the need to compare our accomplishments to theirs, then we get these silly notions of being “better.” So, we never get to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve done right, and instead focus on our failures (there’s always someone “better”). Kinda hard to do well when you’re obsessed with what didn’t work out, as opposed to what did.

  15. 15
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    @ UnknownEric

    See, that just makes me want to hear your work. :D

    “This sounds like it was recorded on a Fisher Price machine.”

    Looking at your nym, I rather suspect you are aware of a band who paid a well-known artist/producer to make an album sound something similar to that.

  16. 16
    cyberlizard

    This strikes at the heart of almost all my (many) failed project attempts. The only reason I got through NaNoWriMo was because it wasn’t supposed to be good. Though I still had to fight the haters in my head. My latest attempt was a comic book. Unfortunately, reading all my favorite web comics just makes me embarrassed at my attempt. I’d like to say that this inspired me to persevere but I seriously doubt it’ll punch through.

  17. 17
    Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    Katherine: this is why I stopped writing fiction. It’s sad. I got all the way up to a fifth of a novel once, and had a really cool idea for another one. But I can’t do it anymore.

  18. 18
    baal

    “There are some people, I think, who never have this problem, who never see the urge to be better get in the way of producing solid work. I doubt they get much better at what they’re doing.”

    I’ve only had Jay’s issue on writing out long essays for exams. But the profs want long and banal so that’s what they got. Otherwise, I never have the problem but I do get better at what I’m doing. Part of doing better is mere practice. the other part is to keep going until I’m failing. Said differently, until and unless I’m failing, I’m not trying hard enough.

    You don’t have to have demons in your head in order to improve.

  19. 19
    Surly Amy

    “It’s still worth it to get in the ring.” I so love that guy. I’m gonna keep showing up too.

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