TASTE x SKILL
If you are in the business of making things, whether it be software, art, music, or physical products - the ultimate accomplishment is being able to consistently create excellent, high-quality work.
This may be obvious to you. But it is difficult to achieve. How does one go about systematically achieving excellence on a regular basis?
Here’s how I like to think about it:
GREATNESS = TASTE x SKILL
Skill (executional ability) is the most obvious part of this equation. Everyone knows that the best craftsmen are talented. But having taste, the ability to perceive that which is of a high aesthetic standard, is the "X factor" that differentiates good art from exceptional art.
Steve Jobs has a quote in which he explains how he consistently made world-class products:
“Great products were a triumph of taste…of trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”
Making excellent art doesn't just happen by snapping your fingers - it requires a dedication to introducing yourself to diverse types of aesthetic excellence, and then drawing energy and direction from your inspirations. It's one of the great secrets of making good stuff, and how you develop your taste.
For most creators, this happens naturally, as being inspired to create is one of the greatest feelings. You become addicted to the drug of inspiration. But not all inspiration is productive. Not all inspiration takes you higher.
- "You are what you eat” - A phrase that I live by is … the things you consume make you the person you are. If this is true, it means you must be ruthless about guarding the things you are taking in. It is a reminder to consume the right things - to focus on filling yourself with that which enriches, enlightens and informs.
- Find your brain trust. Miles Davis moved to NYC to hang out in the clubs and work on his craft, in the presence of great jazz musicians. Who are your contemporaries?
- Live life intentionally. Trying new things… going to a sculpture garden. Trying new foods. Traveling. Developing a personal style. Listening to music and picking out what you like, discarding what you don't like.
- Give yourself time to reflect. This is when you can make those connections between the taste you are developing, and the art you are making.
Feeding yourself with the right inspiration naturally fuels creative productivity (actually making stuff), which leads me to my next point.
The second part of my equation states that you need tremendous executional ability to carry out a vision - ideally a vision fueled by great taste.
So how does one become good at executing?
2. SKILL (executional ability)
Making good shit takes a lot of doing… you simply have to put in the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert.
But it's not enough just to keep making stuff. You have to make stuff with the intention of being excellent. "Putting your taste to the test” - critically examining your work and others.
The whole process of making things can be frustrating, especially when you are someone with naturally good taste - who "gets it.” As Ira Glass of PRI’s This American Life notes in an interview, there’s a period of time when there is a palpable difference between the quality of work you are actually producing, and the standards that you hold. Part of this may be because you are not in full control of what’s being built. It may also be because you’re still developing that knack for impeccable taste in your decision making, but you have the right instincts nonetheless - enough to keep you unsatisfied.
Take a look:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me … is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
There’s no way around it.
To make great things, you have to put in the work. And sometimes that means failing. But it always means growing. When combined with exceptional taste
So as you are doing, and putting in your 10,000 hours, don’t forget to continue to hone your taste - that intuition for what is excellent, and fine quality.