He put down his coffee, looked out the window, then turned back to me.
“The image I’ve carried around since I was very young is this other version of me, who’s not necessarily perfect, but who’s my ideal…it’s like, he’s like…”
He struggled to find the words.
…The more successful, more productive, more socially well-adjusted, more, you know, everything. More confident version of me.
It is me, but I’m behind several screens or something, and I can’t really get through.
It’s like he’s on a different channel. It’s almost like a time slip, an alternate universe.
But at the time, when I was like 18, The fact that I could envision this alternate-reality version of me—that I was clearly not at that point in my life—was very disturbing to me. It’s this perfect you. Well, I can’t be that, so why bother trying.
I was like, Ah, it’s too bad I can never be that person. It’s already too late. Too bad I didn’t do that one thing when I was 12 and head on that course.
My friend is known as a cartoonist, but he’s also a serious—non-professional—guitarist.
The way he ended up one and not the other is instructive.
Back when he was 18 (and maybe slightly tripping on LSD) and came up with this visualization of his alternate-reality, idealized self, it was music that stood at the center of his creativity.
Comics? He liked comics, but he’d never thought of making them himself.
I was very much tied up in knots over what do I have to say? And how am I going to meet people? And who’s going to like my stuff? And are people going to make fun of me on stage at the Blue Flamingo? To the point where I didn’t even got as far tell people I play guitar, much less form a band.
I thought that the fact that I pictured a version of myself doing things better than I was doing them now meant that I was cut off from that completely. That it was solid plate glass between me and that alternate reality.
It’s fatalistic if you let it be.
What it came down to was that he was afraid. And in his fear, he imagined that if he’d just done XYZ in the past, he would have ended up a person who wasn’t afraid, and so that other person would have had all the success my friend didn’t have…at age 20.
And that’s OK. To feel afraid. It’s scary to put yourself out there, to go cap in hand and guitar in hand to whoever his local guitar heroes were and say, Hey can I jam with you.
It’s scary to show up at an open mic night and risk humiliation. What if something happened??
But what my friend didn’t get then is that that feeling nervous didn’t mean he had no chance. It just meant that it mattered to him.
And that meant he needed to pull up his socks and take action. To take the next step.
He knows that’s true, because of what happened on the other side of his creative life, in comics.
I say this a lot about my career: I backed into being an artist. when I was 18, I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I didn’t think I was going to be a cartoonist.
With comics, I saw other people making comics. They were just photocopying them. There was no pressure involved. People seemed to really enjoy doing it and sharing it.
And I started drawing, I started making minicomics, I started trading them, I started entering into a social network, going to conventions. I started getting help and encouragement from my peers and people a little older than me.
Now, he may veer closer or further to his alternate-reality self in the comics world depending on what’s happening in his career, but the key insight is that it’s in his power to change who he is in the world. He’s not blocked off behind plate glass.
Now it’s more like…it’s the multiverse. There are multiple realities—I see all these different versions of me out there. There’s not just one perfect platonic ideal that I’m trying for. And those identities and dimensions are more fluid than I realized when I was younger. I actually AM those characters in good and bad ways.
The idea of a multiverse of possible lives you could live depending on what you choose to do with your work can be empowering and motivating. But there’s a crucial difference between looking back and looking at the present and forwards.
With music, my friend looked back and thought, It’s too late.
With comics, he thought, Huh, look at this interesting present. And then later, he thought, In the future, I’m gonna _______.
I can see how silly my various problems were when I was younger.
The fact that you don’t have a band and are doing really cool stuff within a year, doesn’t mean you have no talent and aren’t going to get around to it.
Age is a great advantage in this stuff. The ego part doesn’t go away but it fades. You gain perspective. All right, so you’re over 21 and you haven’t published a novel yet. You know what? Who fucking cares.
This story has a happy ending. My friend started making music again many years ago now.
By the time I came back to music, it was just for fun.
But gradually, I realized I’m not just doing this for fun anymore.
Anything I can achieve these days is a personal triumph, because I’m doing it in the crevices of my busy life. There’s no point in getting too wrapped up in it. When stuff comes along, I’ll try to do it.
Really, the relevant metaphor isn’t screens or solid windows separating you from that other version of yourself. It’s more like you’re on parallel train tracks that converge and diverge and cross at various times.
If you time it right, you can hop over to the other track. The trains, they’re going very fast. But there are junctures where, if you get your timing right—or sometimes it’s just dumb luck…Somebody forgot to reset the switch.
I feel like we all share this feeling of regret, a version that I should be, but I’m not. There’s some Should Monster stuff, there’s some Idea Debt as you carry this with you.
But as you move forward, if you’re open and curious and start taking the next step on these things—You can’t have-been-20-and-famous, but you can switch onto that track and become something like that person in the future.
And maybe you’ll become new versions of you that you can’t even imagine given your current information. It’s not a closed system.
You have no possibility to changing your life unless you start doing actions that are different from actions you did before.
You have to decide how important it is to you. Is it important enough to be uncomfortable?
So me, I’ve been taking hip hop dance classes for almost a year. I’m not good. It’s often humiliating.
But I’ve lived with this alternate-reality-me in my head since I was in my 20s who was a kick-ass dancer. And at the age of 47, I faced the fear—and let’s be clear—the enormous inertia, and started taking intro classes.
The thing is, when it comes to parties, clubs, I’m a pretty good dancer. I stay on the beat, have a good sense of how to improv. And I love it.
But what I found out (when I bought a video tutorial a few years ago thinking I could teach myself) is that 1. learning choreography and 2. Being able to actually dance it and not just kind of act out the movements, is absolutely nothing—at all—like being a good social dancer.
I was facing the gap.
I mean the Ira Glass gap, where I have excellent taste but can’t produce work that’s up to that level. (Ironically, I think I was inspired by Ira to start dancing classes, since he became dance-obsessed in his 50s when he collaborated with dancers for a live show.)
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. We get into this thing, I don’t even know how to describe, but there is a gap.
For the first couple years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell, that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean? You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit.”
Taking action—any action at all—on a project is a huge risk.
It’s easy for anyone to say, Just write for 5 minutes! What could it hurt?
But the second you write down something shitty, you feel like an idiot.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up, and close that gap, and the work will be as good as your ambitions. Look, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while.
You’ve just gotta fight your way through that.
The gap, then, is between you and the alternate-reality you that you carry around with you.
I’m still facing the gap when it comes to dance. I will be for a long time, if not forever. But what’s interesting about it is that, since I started, the alternate-reality-me has changed, gotten more nuanced based on actual information as opposed to dreams, and become more accessible.
I may never become the dancer I imagined I could be at age 25. But I can be the dancer I imagine now.
We all—or if not “all,” at least anyone who would be reading this post—have to live with that gap.
I was standing with a woman the other day who was holding my book Growing Gills, when a friend of hers walked up.
The woman was saying how interesting it was to talk to someone who’s written a book.
Her friend pipes up immediately, “You wrote a book? Can I pay you to teach me how to write a book?”
Mind you, he had no idea what my book was about…it was closed and inert, in his friend’s hand.
I say, that’s not really what I do. What you probably need is an author coach, or a book coach. I gave him some names to check out.
He says, “Thanks, that’s great. Because I want to make it really good.”
I tell him, “OK, you’ve got to write it first, and then you can work on making it good.”
He nods, a big smile on his face. Then he says, “How long should a chapter be? Because I want to put it on YouTube…”
“Sure, yeah. But write the book first. First, just start putting things on paper.”
“Yeah, definitely. I’ve got the whole story worked out here,” he taps his head. He looks at Growing Gills. “How many pages is that?”
The woman looks and says, “244 pages.”
“Because I want my book to be something like that.”
I say, “What you gotta do is write something really crappy.”
The woman bursts into incredulous laughter. “What??”
“That’s gotta be your goal. Write something crappy. Write SOMETHING. You can’t make something new until you’ve made…something.”
His was the purest case of Idea Debt I think I’ve seen in a very long time. This guy has clearly been sitting on this thing a while. He’s figured out how thick he wants his book to be. He knows how famous he wants to be on YouTube. But he hasn’t actually written… anything.
He’s harboring a vision of an alternate-reality self who coasts along being a superstar. What I was trying to help him understand is that the only way he gets closer to living in that alternate reality is if he starts taking action.
I’m not mocking him. It’s totally understandable. Making something that’s not up to your standard is painful and humiliating, and it’s certain that his first efforts won’t be at the level his alter-ego reaches.
The gap is wide and deep and scary… and the only way you get to the other side is by starting projects…
… and finishing projects…
… And then doing it again and again and again.
Now, if you’re like most people who read my blog, you’re not living in 100% Idea Debt. You’ve got projects started, possibly a whole lot of them.
But the basic truth holds: if you’re not willing take risks to finish them, if you’re not willing to try and see what you might be capable of, then you’ll have to get used to living with that vision of alternate-reality you, untouchable, behind bullet-proof glass.
Projects are vectors. They’re vehicles for arriving at the place where you take possession of a new identity, one so recently owned by your imaginary alternate-universe self.
And while it’s scary and can be painful to take the next step (witness last Sunday’s dance class—oh man), there’s joy in feeling that the decision is yours. And there’s power in knowing you are strong enough to face the discomfort.
And the best part? That alternate reality you picture will start to become your reality.
September 13, 2018 at 1:41 pm
Spot on, Jessica! It’s bad enough when you compare yourself to your art heroes, but when you compare yourself to your ideal self who is utterly flawless, witty and masterful at their work (which should be a clue right there that it’s not real) you’re lost before you ever start. I was telling a friend recently how my latest series of work has been so difficult to get going because it’s so personal and close to my heart, and she pointed out that no, it isn’t close to my heart, it IS my heart and the potential for rejection is huge. My ideal self has finished the project and it’s utterly amazing! Cue the wild applause and the adulation of the masses. In reality, I have one completed and the others are scaring the crap out of me, but I’m making slow, painful progress. Regardless of how they actually turn out in the end, I’ll be a better painter for it than if I just painted something easy and shelved this project because it has no chance of living up to the earth-shattering perfection I’ve created in my head. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. Excellent article!