If It Burns, It's Working

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Think about a time when you went through an intense stretch of learning. Perhaps it was school or a new job or building a new skillset or getting more physically fit. Do you remember the period in which the more you learned, the more stupid or feeble or untalented you felt? Did it feel as if, the more your eyes opened to new information, the more you realized how naive or deficient you’ve been all along?

Being a quote-unquote Creative, I toil in this state all the time, but I don’t think it’s a struggle shouldered to Creatives alone. Bear with me as I get biblical on you.

I’m currently reading the 12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson. He briefly mentions that the word ‘sin’ used in many passages of the Bible literally originates from the Greek word ἁμαρτία hamartia “to miss the mark” - an archery term used to conceptualize error or mistake. At worst sin is but a mere failure, but at least it’s not as heavy-handed or loaded as the Christian notion of Original Sin.

You don’t have to be a Christian or even a theist to recognize the power of a good story. So let’s wander over to the Garden of Eden for a hot minute and consider one of our oldest allegories: the explanation of human suffering.

A serpent appears to Eve in the Garden and references fruit from the forbidden tree: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5)

Now consider the following passage from This American Life’s Ira Glass, on Storytelling.

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, 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.”

Riffed from Ira Glass’s Storytelling and David Shiyang Liu's piece based on Ira Glass’s Storytelling.

The more knowledge we gobble up, the more our taste improves. And our taste is what we (egotistically) deem as The Ultimate: a state of perfection. But it’s a constantly moving target because the more we learn and mature, the more our taste is improved, and well, that plane of perfection ratchets upwards. And Knowledge is a trickster. When we see it, when we bite into it, it has a funny way of making us feel exposed. It opens our eyes to how lacking we actually are. Full of faults, standing naked in the middle of a beautiful garden, really. Totally missing the mark.

Because of our taste, we can tell the difference between good and bad creations and we’re able to compare and contrast how well we measure up. We mature, we know better, we recognize who’s good at stuff, and if we’re better or worse than them. We also love all the stuff that’s better than what we can do, create, perform, manufacture, but we simultaneously mourn and suffer because we crave to be THAT GOOD too. So we strive to reach the next level by learning even more. And yet we continue to suffer as our taste further improves and yet the gap between the center of the target (perfection), and our arrow’s landing spot (our capability) ever widens. The more we learn, the more it hurts. The more we eat, the more we feel exposed to our lack of intelligence, lack of maturity, lack of skills, lack of originality. But the more we’re exposed to these flaws, the greater urge we feel to fix them. And the vicious cycle continues.

Therein lies our drive toward Purpose (heads) and the curse of the Human Condition (tails).

How do we survive this constant state of turmoil? After thousands and thousands of years of evolution, we’ve made it a lot easier, but you’ve gotta be willing to put aside this notion that you’re the one who is truly original and unique.

1. The key to learning The Thing is to copy The Thing. Over and over. Memorize, rewrite, duplicate, mimic, whatever it takes to ingrain that piece of knowledge into our ancient lizard brain.

2. The key to making a New Thing is to transform The Thing. We can do this because our lizard brain has evolved to a human brain. When we finally know the chorus by heart, we begin to appreciate the bridge, the guitar solo, the dissonant outro, the variation on a theme. We revisit the subplots, the misunderstood characters, the cast extras, and the deleted scenes. The bonus material and the hidden meanings. As they say, the devil’s in the details.

And now it’s our turn. The Consumer becomes the Creator. This concept of eating from the proverbial Tree of Knowledge—aka Free Will—gives us the “godlike” opportunity to get us closer to the mark. If to sin is to error, we have control over constructing the solution to fix the error. Here’s the secret hack, though: It’s time to riff and remix the original. Don’t start from scratch. Steal like an artist.

3. Finally, the key to improving The Thing is to combine The Thing. Join forces. Mix and match it up with other Really Good Things or even Bad Things that need help. Put a new spin on it through collaboration.

This third component is humanity’s biggest struggle, being the self-serving ego-maniacs we are. Sometimes when we see people doing something better than we are, we hit the flight button. We bounce. We quit. We turn away from the pain of taking more bites, of knowing more. Don’t do that. Lean into the pain and tell Ego to take a nap. Because the magic happens when you join forces.

To learn more about how your favorite artists, musicians and inventors rock this trifecta—and to feel a hell of a lot better on those days when you feel super unoriginal, unintelligent, and untalented—watch the four-part series Everything’s A Remix from Kirby Ferguson.

But recapped and TL;DW:

• Copy the groundwork that’s already established [to save time].

• Transform the copy: apply your own paradigm--your personal frame of reference--and make suitable adjustments [to make it solve your unique problem].

• Combine the transformed copy with other transformed copies, components, functions, and ideas that further diversify your transformed copy from that which came before [to make it better].

As my partner James always says, don’t let perfect be the enemy of: done, good, getting started, making progress, etc. We’re literally never going to be perfect. It’s our fate to miss the mark always and forever. And yet it’s our curse to strive to get there, to close the gap between our failures and our taste. So we might as well take it in stride because at least we know one thing: if we’re hurting, we must be getting somewhere.

If it burns it’s working.


Does your organization need a little creative mojo boost?
Maybe you need to workshop it out.

Katie Robleski