The gap between taste and achievement

One of the links that has been making the rounds of academic email lists lately is a series of Youtube videos of Ira Glass talking about the art of telling stories. I have a love/hate relationship with Ira Glass and This American Life, but in the “third video in the series”: he says something that is really profound and something that has really made me think about how I advise my students.

In the video Glass points out that people who are just beginning to write (or do work of any kind, I reckon) experience a gap between what they know is good, and what they are capable of. They can see what quality work is — they have a sense of it and a passion for it that motivates them to create, and yet at the same time they feel that their own capabilities are insufficient to make work that meets their own standards. Glass urges people to develop their skills so that they can close that gap, and he urges them to do it by producing tremendous amounts of material, forcing them to hone their skills through repeated practice. To make people feel better, he emphasizes that he is incredibly successful and has closed the gap, and that it took him years and years to do so, so we should not be freaked out if it takes us a while.

The situation that Glass describes is totally true and I see it in my students — particularly my graduate students — all the time. His tip to work work work is also spot on — Greg Costikyan once told me “you have to throw the first million words away”, which is great advice. And Glass’s willingness to demonstrate that if he can do it then anyone can adds ‘story’ to his argument and makes it more compelling.

I recently began giving Glass’s speech to my students because they find it tremendously reassuring. But then I stopped giving it because I think it is actually a lie. Who in the world actually ever manages to close that gap? In my experience, and the experience of everyone I’ve ever talked to, people’s ability to produce good work develops over time, but so does the scope of their ambitions and the precision of their standards.

A less comforting truth is this: people who do mediocre work have some mixture of low standards, low energy, unambitious goals, and a high opinion of their abilities. People who do good work have high standards, work hard, stay hungry, and are all too aware of what the work demands and what they are capable of. Doing good work, doing it healthily, and over the course of an entire career, is not about closing the gap between taste and achievement, it is about keeping it open, and managing that gap in a healthy and productive way.

I am sure that if we were to actually watch Ira Glass at work we would not see him breezing into the studio, effortlessly tossing out perfectly honed pieces, and then knocking off at eleven for an early lunch, cocktails, and golf. I bet he sweats — a lot. And I bet he loves doing it.

Telling students that it will get better is easy — it makes them feel better, and it makes us feel better to convince others that we are stronger than we really are. But the truth is that the gap between taste and achievement doesn’t go away, the scale on which it operates increases, and the ease with which we manage it lessens. Less comfortable, but the truth — and what students deserve.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “The gap between taste and achievement

  1. Or perhaps different people experience and develop as writers differently, and in ways that do not fit the models you described… funny how differentiated instruction seems to goes hand in hand with cultural relativism.

  2. Good post. Some quick, random thoughts: Glass seems to describe the development of journalists’ writing, rather than fiction or academic writing. Indeed, Glass’s advice seems to be contradicted by the experience of many authors of fiction, who write a major first work, and then cannot follow it up, and write mediocre novels after that. Glass’s advice might apply to anthropology students, but having taught graduate students for 30 years in several good departments, my impression of the problem is that each of us starts at a different point of ability or talent, and improves within a small range (if at all).

    There is a difference between writing well and being smart/clever – I was fortunate to look be able to look over the shoulder of an American Anthropologist editor for 4 years, and was surprised over and over at how poorly some of the best anthropologists in the world wrote submissions that were nonetheless extremely smart – their final published pieces owed much to the heavy editorial assistance of good editors.

    A final random thought: the implied contrast between achievement and aptitude is a classic American dilemma. There was a nice piece in The Atlantic by James Fallows a number of years ago about the Japanese educational system and its assumption that all performance was the product of achievement, versus the American assumption that a large part of performance was the product of aptitude (we obsess about IQ, for example, while students in Japan were assumed to have equal aptitude at the start of their educational experience; we admire the brilliant student who aces exams without studying, and even disdain the student who gets that A only because they studied long and hard, while Japanese students take it for granted that all performance is based on the level of work invested, etc etc). (Conrad Kottak wrote a comparable piece on competitive swimming in Brazil and the U.S. that has been anthologized, I believe, and is more easily available.) Ira Glass’s advice incorporates this distinctly American tension (it is This American Life, after all) – hard work pays off, but aptitude limits where you start and where you are capable of ending up.

  3. The first description I heard of what Glass is describing came from a music professor: Almost every adult who decides to learn to play an instrument does so because they truly love music, but almost all of them will give up long before they achieve any proficiency whatsoever due to the disjunct between how easy it is for their ears to hear that Coltrane is great music and how hard it is to teach their fingers to play scales.

    There’s a corollary to the Glass Axiom—poking holes in the groundbreaking work of another author does not make you that author’s equal. It may well make you more correct than they are, but you should remember that they did the heavy lifting for you.

  4. The comments on this entry so far have focused mostly on variability — the idea that people work in lots of different ways (M) or that different cultures have different ideas about aptitude versus hard work (Taylor). I would push back against these comments — what people want to do well, and how they do it changes cross culturally (and interpersonally) of course, but I think there is still room for the stronger claim that this sense of the goal and the limitations at hand can be generalized. And for the record, I don’t think Glass is particularly focused on how aptitude limits us in this piece — quite the opposite.

    SM-obsessed readers might have noticed that this post shares something with my earlier posts on personal transformation and craftsmanship. I think Glass’s point is generalizable because it holds true across all the different domains I’ve been involved with — singing, dancing, acting, writing fiction, nonfiction, learning to interview, cook, etc. And it holds true not just for my own experience but across those of the numerous performers and artists that I’ve watched, worked with, and talked to. Although the particular form this takes differs from person to person and place to place, I think there is a kernel here that cannot be dismissed in the name special snowflakeism or cultural relativity.

  5. Rex, maybe the honest thing to tell your students is, “The longer you do something the better you will become at doing it. Your rate of improvement, however, is somewhat unpredictable, as is your ultimate aptitude for the thing you’re trying to get better at.” If only writing were like playing the piano, where you can just tell the kid with tiny hands things are a no go, or runway modeling, where you can be pretty cut and dry with the girl who stands 5’3″.

    This discussion makes me think of David Schneider’s anecdote (in Schneider on Scheider, p.34, in the context of his discussion of how he and George Peter Murdock didn’t care much for one another) about going to Murdock’s office to inform him that he was dropping out of Yale’s graduate program: “[Murdock], in the first sign of humanity that I had ever seen, stood up from his desk, put his hand awkwardly on my shoulder, and said, ‘I know you will be a success at something, Dave, but it isn’t anthropology, is it?'”

  6. I tell my students that the stress and frustration that they are feeling is natural, and that they are not alone in experiencing them (Glass’s main point). I tell that that it will get easier to do this sort of work, that they will be able to do bigger and better work, but that the stuff that is ambitious will always give them these sorts of problems. I try to emphasize to them that the secret is finding a healthy way to be critical of yourself, and to understand big projects not only as an opportunity to bring an ambitious project to fruition, but an opportunity to grow as craftsman and find coping mechanisms that are productive and healthy.

    The comments above seem to indicate that people think I’m telling my students that they are lousy at what they do, have no natural aptitude, and never will develop any. I’m assuming I’m reading them wrong, since its ridiculous read that into what I’ve said…

    …although Murdock might have been right about Schneider…

  7. …although Murdock might have been right about Schneider…

    My CI tells me that Schneider’s departure from Chicago was directly related to Sahlins’ presence. (Though that may be common knowledge in Hyde Park for all I know.)

  8. Rex wrote

    “The comments above seem to indicate that people think I’m telling my students that they are lousy at what they do, have no natural aptitude, and never will develop any. I’m assuming I’m reading them wrong, since its ridiculous read that into what I’ve said…”

    That’s certainly not what I intended, and in any event I was responding to Ira Glass, not to Rex, with the off-the-cuff speculation that an American distinction between aptitude and achievement may not be operative in all contexts, and may not be balanced the way we natives think in every case.

    There are many ‘craft’ practices in which one improves by repetition, from throwing pots to surgery, but there are other forms of creative production in which aptitude may form an upper limit: the student whose piano playing improves every day with practice might find that unlimited practice at writing music never gets them to the level Mozart reached as a child. Even recognizing that extreme cases make bad generalizations, I think the point is clear. (I remember an exhibit of watercolors at the Met a number of years ago, by 19th century girls who studied basic drawing and painting as part of the standard equipment of an upper-middle class woman tutored at home – technically good, highly competent work, the product of dedicated practice, but out of several hundred examples only a few displayed the kind of talent that might have lead in the late 20th century to a career as a professional artist.)

    As for teaching students, most of the undergraduates I’ve seen in 30 years of teaching can make vast improvements in the quality of their work through practice and repetition, or so it has seemed to me. And when we find an undergraduate or graduate student who, in addition, possesses a spark of real talent for the business, that is terrific, and worth cultivating as well.

  9. Rex, I’ve really enjoyed this series of posts and I think you nailed it in this one.

    I ran to show it to my wife, who runs an arts organization for ’emerging artists’ and deals regularly with members mired in your “less comforting truth.” She remarked that in her own work she is driven by the concept of a project, so she does sweat, there is a gap each time, and its scale tends to increase. But she doesn’t feel like “the ease with which we manage it lessens;” neither of us could figure out what you meant by that.

    @David, I still remember a former latino gangbanger I loved for his intelligence and insight but worried about for his late start as a writer running into my office with a paper he had been working on in the computer lab. He was excited because he had suddenly realized that if he rewrote a sentence he had already written, it could actually say what he meant better. I stopped worrying about him and two years later he got a full ride to the doctoral program in Ethnic Studies at UCB.

    I remember that story because it’s so simple and so rare. Rex is describing an elusive sweet spot.

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