To Become Who You Want to Be, You Have to Face the Gap

First, you have to dare to be bad at something

A person playing an acoustic guitar on a stage
Photo: Prapass Pulsub / Getty Images

I was getting a coffee with a talented, accomplished friend when he dropped a conversational bomb. He looked out the window and said, “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… 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 seem to get through.”

Many of us have an alternate-reality self we wish we could be. The most striking thing about my friend’s revelation was that even when he was as young as 18, he had already given up hope of ever becoming this wished-for version of himself — a working musician, it turned out. Way back then he was already telling himself: “Too bad it’s already too late for me to be that person. Why bother trying?”

My friend has a successful career. He’s also a gifted amateur guitarist, but, assuming he could never become a rockstar, he never even attempted to take his music seriously. As a young man, he was so afraid of failing at music that he didn’t tell people he played, let alone form a band or perform at an open mic.

He was too nervous. What my friend didn’t get is that feeling nervous didn’t mean he had no chance at becoming a great musician. It just meant that it mattered to him.

Illustration: Jessica Abel

Facing the gap

Consider this: The only way to change your life is to change your actions. How important is this alternate-reality version of yourself? Is it important enough to live with some intense discomfort?

I’ve been taking hip-hop dance classes for almost a year. I’m a pretty good social dancer, so I’d long lived with this alternate-reality-me who was a kick-ass, trained dancer. In my late forties, I started taking intro classes. And let’s just say my performance in my dance classes did not at all match up to my mental image of what I should be capable of. It felt, often, humiliating.

I was facing the gap.

I mean the Ira Glass Gap. It’s when you have excellent taste but can’t produce work that’s up to that level. This is the public radio host Ira Glass on the 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 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 on a project is a huge risk. It’s easy for anyone to say, Just write for five minutes! What could it hurt? But the second you write something shitty, you feel like an idiot.

That’s true for my friend the would-be-rockstar, it’s true for me the would-be-Fly Girl, and it’s true of you and the thing you really want to do, too. Of course, you’re never going to produce great work immediately. Especially at first, there will be a big gap between the actual work and your ideal work, between your actual self, and your ideal, alternate-reality self.

“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,” says Glass. “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.”

Illustration: Jessica Abel

How to close the gap

The gap between who you are and who you want to be is wide and deep and scary. Here’s the real secret to getting across the gap: You have to start projects… and finish projects. Again and again and again.

My guitarist friend eventually started making music again. This time, he said, music was fun. This time, he’s recording his songs and posting them for others to hear. He’s looking forward to open mics (when they start to be open again). He may not be rocking out in front of Shea Stadium, but he’s getting closer to the version of himself he wants to be.

Projects are vehicles for arriving at the place where you meet and reunite with your alternate-universe self.

And while it’s scary and can be painful to take the next step (last Sunday’s hip-hop 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.

If you’re teetering on the edge of the Gap, and perfectionism is holding you back, I’ve made a class to help you take the next step — the Creative Engine Masterclass. It’s free, check it out!

Author & coach helping creatives who are ready to make a major impact get their game-changing work finished and into the world.

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