A few weeks ago, I assigned my art students a fun project, a “forgery” of an artist they admire and want to learn from. One student picked Michelangelo. (I talked her down from trying a fresco—in two weeks—to imitating his red chalk studies.)
She copied his work in her sketchbook every day. She went to the art museum to look at originals and she copied those. It was, and I quote, “really hard.”
She, shall we say, fell somewhat short of learning to draw like late-period Michelangelo in 2 weeks.
Does that mean she shouldn’t have tried?
She learned about anatomy, crosshatching, historical drawing tools, drawing dramatically exaggerated beefcakes, and what it will take to get really good at what she wants to do.
She’s gone deeper with Michelangelo’s drawing than any other 19-year-old I’ve met.
That can’t be anything but good.
It would be so nice, wouldn’t it? To feel ready. To feel finished, ducks all in a neat row.
You want assurance that it will all be OK, that you’ll be successful…and you’re not going to get it. Instead, we’re going to have to get used to not feeling ready, and never finished.
We’re going to have to decide that matters less.
What happens when you hike up your socks and march out into the middle of that bloody arena, ready or not?
3 true stories of leaping before you look, and where that gets you
1. When a door closes, take the transom
The first is the story of Alix Spiegel —now the producer of Invisibilia for NPR—and how she got started as a radio producer for This American Life. I heard this story from Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, Nancy Updike, and Alix herself, back in 1998, when I was creating my first radio comic, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, about how This American Life gets made.
Alix’s story is inspiring. AND…admittedly, she still felt she needed to get the gatekeeper to open the gate before she could make her work. So let’s move on to case #2.
2. This is not a story of the starlet at the soda counter
I met Stephanie Foo in 2012, only about two and a half years after the events of this story.
In 2012, she was a key member of the production team at Snap Judgment. Original, laser-focused, productive, just plain good at what she did…and 24 years old. I was stunned to realize how much deliberate practice Stephanie had crammed into such a short time. “I like to say I put in my 10,000 hours early,” she says.
Then, by 2014, she became the youngest producer on staff at This American Life.
Incredible story. She must have connections, right? Some insider advantage? Beyond caring deeply about her craft—because I know you care deeply about your craft, too—what is her secret?
Stephanie started out at age 22 with her own home-grown podcast called…
wait for it…
“Get Me on This American Life.”
On December 6, 2009, Ira Glass performed at Zellerbach Hall in LA. At the end of his performance, he called for one last question.
Stephanie stood up, thrust her hand into the air, and Ira called on her.
She said, “I’ve started my own podcast, it’s called Get me on This American Life, and I have a CD here, and would you listen to it?”
Everyone cheered. She gave the CD to Ira.
…And he never listened to it.
This story is not “Gatekeeper plucks our heroine out of the crowd!”
This story is, Our heroine does her thing and doesn’t give a shit what you think.
The first episode of Get Me on This American Life chronicled Stephanie’s reporting trip to the Adult Video Network Expo.
(That’s right, a porn convention. I told you it was not safe for work!)
On Pilot, she plays the episode for Ira, and gets his reaction. Which is possibly even braver than handing him her CD when she was 22. Now, she’s a pro. Now, she works for Ira. She’s showing her early work to her boss, and getting his feedback on it.
And her early work is blatantly fangirling.
The ovaries on this woman are breathtaking.
Her courage is 100% worth it. This is what comes of it.
(from Pilot, episode 2) [emphasis mine throughout the quotes]
Ira: I do respect the hustle of naming the podcast Get me on this American Life.
Stephanie: It was going to be what got me the internship.
Ira: Did you send it in with the application?
Stephanie: I didn’t. Because this got me a job with Snap before the internship deadline.
Ira: Oh. So, mission accomplished.
Ira: I feel like you are recognizably yourself in this. That is, the way you are just hurtling yourself at this story, trying everything you can think of, I totally recognize the you I that I know. And respect.
And I respect that in 21-year-old Stephanie Foo as well.
Snap Judgment was right to hire you on this. It’s clear that you will make it happen and you will figure out what you like, and it’s all there in a way that’s great.
Which is not to say it wasn’t hard for Stephanie to play that tape, sitting in a room with her boss and icon, Ira Glass.
Stephanie: I’m dying. It’s really hard to listen to.
Ira: Why? Because the lines are embarrassing?
Stephanie: It’s really painful. And I really can’t believe that I was a person at one point that was so inept at things.
But it also makes me really nostalgic because the best part is the beginning. There are no stakes, really. I mean obviously, there was a goal.
But I knew I was going to be really bad at it. So I could just have fun and experiment.
Ira goes on to talk about how he feels like he’s still skating on the edge of disaster and greatness every single week on TAL. His take on the value of creative risk is well worth a listen. But he’s Ira Glass. I can hear him say that without fully believing he feels it.
On the other hand, even years later, Stephanie still felt like she was somehow cheating. I interviewed her in 2015 for the first episode of my podcast, Out on the Wire. (You can get the full-length interview in our digital extras package.)
Stephanie: Especially when I just started out, I was just interviewing all my friends, everyone I knew. I was lying about being a journalist and calling random people. I remember I thought the “i can has cheezburger” meme was just so ridiculous, I wonder how that guy came up with that? So I just called the guy up…
Jessica: Wait, what do you mean you were “pretending to be a journalist”?
Stephanie: I mean, I was like, “Oh, I have a podcast that’s legit. Where I interview people about, uh…their life goals or dreams or whatever.
…I mean, I did. I had a podcast called Get me on This American Life.
Jessica: I don’t think that’s lying. That’s being brave, ambitious.
Stephanie: Also a little a bit sneaky. I kept it a secret that my listenership was like, five.
Jessica: How does it feel to be the grown up woman now, working at This American Life? What do you want to say to the skateboarding girl who was “pretending to be a journalist,” who had a podcast called Get me on This American Life?
Stephanie: I wouldn’t say anything to her, she needed to figure it out for herself. And she did… I think she did everything right.
I never waited for permission to create. I didn’t wait for an internship to make. I didn’t wait for somebody to edit me or somebody to say it’s OK for you do this, or it’s a good idea for you to do this.
I was just like, well, I’m gonna do it. And maybe it’s a terrible idea. But…why not?
And I didn’t wait.
People that think that if you ruminate enough, or if you talk to enough people, stories are just going to find you, and ideas are going to find you, and success is going to find you. And it’s just not true.
You have to go out and take it.
Your job is to build a cage that can catch luck as it flies by
Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment told me what they look for when they hire producers.
One thing we look for is people who are already doing something of some sort, even if it’s shitty.
Stephanie had a podcast before she was hired, it was called Get me on This American life. She was doing something, right? She wasn’t sitting back waiting for something to happen, her need to tell stories was such a part of her being.
I mean, Pat’s got music blog stuff, Anna was doing backpack journalism, Jamie has a whole ’nother career as performance storyteller. You have to have the drive before you get here.
3. Dare to be bad
I titled this article “There is no gatekeeper.”
That’s not quite true: if your goal is literally to be on This American Life, Ira Glass (among others) holds that velvet rope. You’ve got to impress him.
But in order to make work as GOOD as that which runs on This American Life?
You have to simply start making your work, and going public with your work, then raise the stakes, and do it again.
Find an audience, and do the absolute best you can for them.
Not until you are doing that already will the gatekeepers welcome you in.
They may even seek you out.
Let’s be a band
Here’s a third story that’s a lot closer to home, and doesn’t involve ever getting a job somewhere famous.
I have been friends with Sharon Maloy since college, and we lived together for a few years after graduation. She’s got a much sharper memory than I do, so last summer, sitting around a campfire with a bunch of friends, I asked her to tell this story.
This is 1992, before Jessica and I knew anything or anybody. We were going to shows, going out all the time. We would take two buses, and an hour later be at this bar.
I remember sitting in the kitchen, and Jessica said, “We gotta stop being in the audience. Fuck this being in the audience. We gotta be the band! Let’s not be in the audience!”
I was like, “OK!…Let’s be a band.”
And we had this meeting, about this band we were gonna have…once we learned how to play instruments.
We were at the the kitchen table with the bright overhead lights. There was paper. Jessica was writing stuff down.
I bought a used bass, a used amp, a cord, a book on how to play, and a push-up bra.
On April Fools day.
I was like oh my god, this is ridiculous, what is happening?
Jessica: I can’t believe you bought the bra on the same day!
Sharon: I bought the bra on the same day! My very first one.
Jessica: …as if she’s had like a hundred.
Sharon: So I was playing along with Dinosaur Jr. songs and Jessica was going…ding ding ding [AKA hitting one note on a guitar over and over].
Jessica: Of course, you knew how to play instruments and you knew music, and I didn’t at all, so I was like: OK, great. YOU learn how to play.
Sharon: And then Jessica tells me, I asked my friend Dave over to jam with us.
Dave had been in bands for years.
I’m like, what? We just bought our instruments. We don’t know how to play them yet!
So Dave comes over, and he sits on the couch and plays Cinnamon Girl for an hour. We couldn’t play a note. Then he gets up like, that was fun. And he leaves. And, oh my god.
Then a week later, Jessica’s like, all right, I invited Sung over to jam.
After that Cinnamon Girl disaster, you invited the guy who runs the comics shop where we buy our comics?
Sung came over, and we played Calling Dr. Love.
Jessica sang, I played bass, and Sung played guitar, and we played Dr. Love for like an hour.
We played a lot of Dr. Love.
But Sung thought that was really fun. And so Sung called Stuart, his friend who played drums, and said, Hey Stuart, I just played Dr. Love for an hour with these two girls who live in Andersonville! It was really fun, do you want to come?
So Stuart comes and sets up his drums in our living room, and we play Dr. Love, full drum kit.
We have Sung who actually knows how to play guitar, we have me who’s figured out the baseline to ONLY Dr. Love…
Jessica: …and me who knows the lyrics to Dr. Love and nothing else.
Sharon: She’s lead-singering it out like nothing else.
And we do that for so long, we all get a little tired of Dr. Love, so we’re standing around, and I start noodling around, and noodle-noodle-noodle, we start writing a song.
That’s Chronic, the song we started writing after playing Dr. Love for an hour.
We become Bender.
So, we had 3 songs, 4 songs.
And one night these guys in a band called the Lilacs came over, and they saw our instruments lying around, and they said, hey, do you play in a band?
And Jessica said, Oh yeah, we have a band. We’re called Bender.
This is before we’ve ever played anything, ever.
They say, We have a record release party coming up, do you want to open for us?
And she’s like, Yeah, sure, when is it?
And they’re like, in a month.
So we had to write a whole set in a month. 20 minutes of songs.
That was our first show, at Phyllis’s.
We played a show, and all our friends came, and then we had a band.
It was an actual band, we played actual music.
I was like, But I don’t know how to do that!
And she’s like… And now we’re doing it.
OK…I guess I do know!
The Jessica motto was Dare to be Bad. It was very useful. It was a good motto.
Because it’s hard to be bad when you don’t want to be.
You want to be good. But you know you’re bad.
Being bad is a lot harder than being good.
If you just want to be good, you’ll never do it.
You have to be bad first.
You have to dare to be bad.
So yeah, I was in a band for a couple of years (although I never did learn to play guitar). We played a bunch of shows, we recorded a 7-inch (which, OMG I think you can still buy it????) and broke up eventually due to “artistic differences.”
It was awesome for a while, and I’m really glad I did it.
But the real story is that Sharon went on to join several other bands, real bands like the Dishes…
and the Cartographers…
…that toured nationally and were awesome.
She’s just recently started playing again (Stomatopod—check them out!) after a 10-year hiatus.
She’s never made a living from playing bass, or even tried. But she owes this huge part of her life to the fact that she was willing to dare.
What kind of person does that?
Allowing yourself to care, to go all in on something that you want desperately to be doing, it’s incredibly hard. My friend Natasha talked about having big goals for her business, her health, her money, this way:
There’s a gap between who I know myself to be now, and who I need to become in order to be the person who does those things. I ask myself, what kind of person would have that?
I have to bridge a gap between who I am now and who I need to be in order to do all that or have all that.
I don’t mean that I have to change something fundamental about myself. I mean that I have limiting beliefs, like oh, I could never do that. I could never be that.
Pushing through to say, no, I can…It’s really uncomfortable.
It is totally uncomfortable.
I can remember vividly the terror of humiliation getting on that stage at Phyllis’s for my first rock show. I remember the awkwardness and pain of trying to figure out what “jamming” looks like if you can’t play an instrument…It was excruciating.
But the “kind of person” who does these things is simply the person who does these things.
Action is what creates us.
Doing is what makes you the person who does.
NASA scientists claim that our education system robs us of creativity. Sure, yes, that happens. But it’s not only school. It’s socialization in general. We are social animals and the fear of humiliation and shame are powerful control mechanisms used by the education system, peer groups, and families. Brené Brown has had some choice words about that.
Making creative work means battling this fear that you’ll be targeted, shamed, humiliated, and the only protection from that is to be perfect. Which is exactly how you kill creativity and stop yourself from making—and sharing—your work.
Putting your work in public is terrifying.
Doing so once or twice—and not dying—doesn’t make it a lot less terrifying.
The problem you’re facing when you stop yourself from moving forward with your work is that you believe it will feel less terrifying when you’re “actually ready.”
It won’t. And you will never be “ready.” Just listen to Ira Glass on Pilot if you don’t believe me.
Action comes before self-belief. Courage comes before confidence.
It’s a harder to be bad than to be good. But you have to be bad before good happens.
Dare to be Bad. Own your ambition, go public with it. Know that your courage is what will make the next steps of your life—the life you imagine for yourself—possible.
…and if you know someone who needs to hear this, please share it with them!
This is the third in a series of articles about carving out space in your life for the creative work that’s truly important to you. First: Margin. Second: Pay yourself First. Next, the conclusion: What taking action looks like, and how to go about it.