A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending a talk by Ira Glass, host of the popular NPR program This American Life. Ira was there as part of the Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture series, given each spring in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, who was killed in an automobile accident during the spring of his freshman year.
Krieger loved humor, and his parents honor his memory by inviting outstanding American writers and humorists to speak to the students. Past speakers have included Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, John Irving, P. J. O’Rourke, Calvin Trillin, Jules Feiffer, Oliver Sacks, Tony Kushner, David Sedaris, Michael Chabon, Sarah Vowell, Gail Collins, Augesten Burroughs, and, most recently, Frank Rich.
When Ira walked out on stage, he sat down at a plain table with some sound equipment. Then he shut the lights out and began to speak. It was awkward at first, but I quickly relaxed in my chair and began to feel the magic of listening to him on the radio. It was the perfect beginning.
Ira rambled from one subject to another, recounting his experiences at NPR and humbly sharing some of his best and his worst moments as a reporter and master storyteller. He eventually turned on the lights and offered a few pearls of wisdom.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to be creative.
Start creating. Now. You don’t have to wait for lessons or school or a job to unleash your creativity and validate your talent. You need to work at it, whatever “it” is – music, writing, film, singing, accounting, blogging, landscaping, cooking.
Even he has to work at it. His staff conceives and produces dozens of stories for one show. Many of them get cut. The Onion writers generate hundreds of headlines at a time – again, most get thrown away.
You will not produce a masterpiece on Day 1.
Ira cautioned students that if they wanted to work on his show, they had to have a body of work to show them before they even apply. Technology barriers are so low that there’s little excuse for not producing your own work.
And his corollary to this…
At first, you will probably suck at what you do, even if you love it.
Give yourself permission to fail. In every failure there is a lesson.
To illustrate, Ira played a clip from a story he did seven years into his radio career at NPR. SEVEN YEARS. It was truly awful.
He was reporting on the rising price of corn, and by the time he got to the urgent tortilla shortage, we were all in stitches with him. The story had no point, no message, no purpose. It was just facts and anecdotes thrown into a jumbled mess. It was easily forgettable, unlike his work at This American Life. I admire his grace and humility for revealing a work he’d probably rather forget.
My friends at MomsRising have a lovely way of dealing with failure. They hold a joyful funeral for their mistakes. They embrace them – pulling the plug on something that’s not working, not assigning blame and analyzing what went wrong.
If you’re going to beat yourself up, at least take notes and do a better job next time.