Building a body of work will change other people for the better. It will change the way they look at you as a person. It will change the way you believe in yourself. A body of work is a change agent.
But for you personally, it also matters that you use your body of work to help you grow over time.
It would be easy to give the same speech or play the same set over and over, year after year. But there has to come a time when you take on a new project. The kind of project that scares you.
Everyone will have their bread and butter, of course. Your hit song or your go-to speech or your cookie cutter workshop might be the best way to make money from your work.
But there should also be experimental projects along the way. The kind of project that forces you out of your comfort zone.
Most people will never seek out those projects. Why make myself uncomfortable when I could just keep making money from this thing over here? Because your work matters too much to settle.
Taking risks is how we grow.
Ira Glass on Growing as a Creator
Ira Glass has a quote so powerful it has practically become cliché, but I can’t help sharing it here. It’s too perfect. He shared his thoughts on becoming better at your craft over time, or building a body of work you believe in, in a 2009 interview with Public Radio International:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody would have told this to me. … All of us who do creative work, you know we get into it because we have good taste. … But there is this gap.
For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. … It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not quite that 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 can tell it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point, they quit.
Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work – they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Some of us can admit that to ourselves, and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves. We knew it didnt have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
The thing I would say to you is: Everybody goes through that. If you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase…You gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re gonna finish one story. … You create the deadline. It’s best if you have somebody who’s waiting for work from you. Somebody who’s expecting work from you. Even if it’s not somebody who pays you, but where you’re in a situation where you have to turn in the work. 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 you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
In my case, I do a national radio show. I make my living at this and I’ve been making my living at this for a long time. We’ve won a Peabody Award and all sorts of prizes. 1.7 million people listen to our show and they listen almost to the entire show. People love our show, the show I make with my coworkers. So I’m in a place where I’m done. I’ve mastered this thing.
But I gotta tell you… I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
[Note: At this point Ira plays an old recording from earlier in his career when he was 27 and had been at it for 8 years already. He’s embarrassed by everything about the recording, but he uses it to illustrate his point here.]
So this is like year 8, I’m 27 years old when this is happening. I’m not a beginner. I’m deep deep into it. I guess I’m saying: It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight. Your way. Through that.”
Ira Glass is one of the most respected voices in public radio alive on this planet today. And he makes my point for me.
You have to be willing to take stray paths here and there in order to grow into something more as a creator.
Taking the Leap
Caleb Wojcik is a pro at helping people make talking head videos to build their brand. He also has ambitions of doing much bigger projects.
There is a gap between Caleb’s work today and his taste. He knows he can and will create bigger, more ambitious work in the future. But how does one bridge that gap?
For Caleb’s work to reach its full potential, he’ll have to take risks. That might mean doing a project pro bono. It might mean directing and producing an entire video for the outdoor industry without any guarantee that it will make money.
That’s what it’s like to be a creative person. To lead. To build a body of work.
People pay for the work they believe you can do. The best way to make them believe is to 1) believe in yourself and 2) have proof. If you want to get paid to do something other than you’re doing today, then you’re going to have to take a few risks along the way. There is no other path.
Along the way, you might find those projects you once considered risky taking you in an entirely new direction in your work.
Taking Risks Expands Your Possibilities
Grant Spanier is a fantastic graphic designer. He’s also a film director. And a music producer. And a photographer. He likes to call himself an artist. That can be hard to grasp as an onlooker…
But from Grant’s perspective, he’s simply added to his identity over time because his “risky” new pursuits are enthralling. They make him uncomfortable in all the right ways. They allow him to build a new technical skill set while continuing to use his existing skills. All the while, he’s contributing to his body of work.
If you know Grant as a designer, then it might be confusing when you see him produce an art show featuring music, fog, and neon lights called Lucid. But for Grant, Lucid was just another project. A risky one. One that had no immediate pay off other than to contribute to his body of work in a way that opens up new pathways for the future.
Your body of work has to force you to grow or else you get stale. Nobody likes a stale creator.
Your Body of Work Should Push You to Grow
So not only should your work be an adventure, but it should grow over time. It should push you to grow over time.
Starting today, you should be slowly filling the gap between your taste and your ability, as Ira would say. And once they match, then you’ll have to find new ways to push yourself still.
There is no done in building a body of work. There is only motion. Motion that makes you come alive. Motion that gives your work meaning.
If you’re not ready to take a risk, then are you really ready to build a body of work?