Stumbling in the right direction
April 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
A lot of the successful projects I've completed (in both research and other creative domains) have been the result of stumbling in the right direction, often for several months or years. It's always fun to trace back to uncover the web of ideas, false starts, and pivots that ultimately led to the completion of a particular project. Even though I've been through this process over a dozen times, the serendipity of it all never ceases to amaze me.
One of my favorite feelings is when, in the midst of grinding on a project, I suddenly think of an idea that was inspired by a totally unrelated (or even better, utterly failed) project from several years prior and then use it to overcome some creative hurdle that wouldn't have been possible without that key insight. What seemed like a diversion or flop back then actually ends up paying off in an unexpectedly beautiful way.
Of course, I can't predict the future, so I have no clue whether a seemingly bad idea will end up turning into something useful in the future, or if it's truly a dud. But my hunches have gotten more refined as I gain experience. These instincts are frustratingly hard to describe, and even harder still to teach to others. I can't yet give a recipe for succeeding in creative endeavors; I might never be able to. So the only advice I can give is to keep on stumbling, but try to aim yourself in the right direction.
I'll end with my favorite Ira Glass quote (emphasis mine):
“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.”