move through the creative gap (all the way to the power of awesome)




In a video that’s totally worth your time, Nick Campbell talks about the “creative gap”:

Nick Campbell – The Creative Gap: Becoming Better Than Most from Nick Campbell on Vimeo.

It’s the gap between how good you are now and how good you want to be.

It’s the gap between you and your potential fulfilled.

It’s the gap between the people who stay amateurs and the people who turn pro.

Everybody, Nick points out, has the experience of making something, looking at it, comparing it to the thing that your creative hero or role model made, and thinking, Oh God I suck so bad.

This is around the time that many people quit.

The trick is not to be one of those people.


Seth Godin expresses a similar idea when he talks about The Dip.

The Dip is that long slug through drudgery and pain when you don’t seem to be getting any better or making any progress or getting anywhere at all. When the voices of self-doubt (and maybe certain family members) start eating up your head. Meanwhile, the life you want is on the other side of The Dip — but many people quit before they can get to it.

(Quitting isn’t always a bad thing. Often you need to quit something when you realize it’s taking you in the wrong direction, so you can take all that time and energy and resources and apply it to the right direction. This requires its own kind of courage. But this is not the kind of quitting I’m talking about.)

This makes me think of characters from the Hero’s Journey monomyth known as threshold guardians. Their whole reason for being is to block the protagonist and scare her away from her quest. This is not because the quest isn’t worthy of her — but to test her resolve and her character, to see if she is worthy of the quest. If she’s not prepared to battle her way through, then she should save us the time and trouble and find some other, more appropriate quest.

The Dip is kind of like that.

Because the Dip is a bit deceptive. When we are learning something new, we progress rapidly at first and then we plateau. We go for a long period of time when it seems all the practice in the world isn’t making us any better — because what we can’t see is how that practice is literally rewiring our brain. When we perform a new motion, we trigger a new set of brain neurons to fire together — and as the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. A substance called myelin starts to wrap itself around those neurons, and everytime you repeat that motion, the neurons fire again, and another layer of myelin wraps round them and binds them together. Eventually you’ve created an entirely new pathway in your brain, and the more myelin = the more bandwidth.

So one day you’re going about your practice and you suddenly perform everything with ease and perfection. All that progress you didn’t think you were making arrives all at once. The threshold guardians step aside. The Dip gets flatter. The Gap gets smaller.

You take your practice to a whole new level.

And plateau all over again.

So it goes.


This is what’s known as deliberate practice. It’s not enough that you log a minimum of ten thousand hours at your chosen craft to get truly good at it…because your practice cannot be half-assed. It has to keep you at the very edge of your ability, which means that you’re falling on your ass, making mistakes and failing. But the important thing is that you’re failing forward. The brain learns through mistakes — mistakes force it to stop and evaluate, to pay serious attention, and think its way through what it’s doing. That added intensity of consciousness encodes those actions into your grey matter and carries you farther through the Dip.

The thing about deliberate practice is — it’s uncomfortable.

Anything that pushes us past our comfort zone is going to make us uncomfortable — whether it’s trying something new, taking it to the next level, or exposing ourselves to painful but much needed constructive criticism.

Which is why Nick advises aspiring creative types to get comfortable with discomfort.

Learn to love discomfort.

Discomfort is the price — and sign — of growth.


But why bother to put yourself through all that?

Because other people won’t.

It’s too hard. It takes too long. There’s too much process and not enough on reward and glory.

But it’s the hard stuff, as Nick points out, that will set you apart. We’re living in this age of incredible tools that we get to play with — to take pictures, or make videos, or publish fiction. Used to be that these tools were complicated enough, that learning to use them properly and well was a marketable skill in itself. You had to go through college or some other kind of training program. But now the tools are easier, more sophisticated, and readily available. The Internet is thick with video tutorials and other forms of online instruction that anyone who can get connected can access.

Knowing how to do the thing no longer makes you special.

You have to be able to do stuff that can’t be explained step-by-step in a Youtube video, or in bullet points in a series of blog posts. You have to be on the other side of the Dip, when your skillset becomes so fused with your own personal vision or signature style that they can’t be separated; they shape and form each other. The dancer is no longer just running through choreography. The dancer becomes the dance.

Nick refers to this as your developed good taste. In my blog I refer to it as originality or, more often, as soul. It’s when our creativity is given a deep and true self-expression because we have the necessary skills to translate the vision from inside our head and body to the world. (After all, I might think I’m being creative and self-expressive when I’m playing piano, but let’s face it: I’m plunking out ‘Heart and Soul’ like everybody else.)


The thing about creative growth — and this applies just as well to social media, which is its own form of creative work — is that you can apply what Brian Tracy calls the Law of Accelerating Acceleration.

Fully 80 percent of your success will come in the last 20 percent of the time you invest.

He adds: Just think! You will achieve only about 20 percent of the total success possible for you in the first 80 percent of the time and money that you invest in an enterprise, a career, or a project. You will achieve the other 80 percent in the last 20 percent of the time and money that you invest.

You can prove this principle on paper.

Double a penny every day for 30 days. By the 30th day, you will have several million dollars. However, on the 29th day, you will have only half of the amount that you will have on the thirtieth day. And on the twenty-eighth day you will have only one quarter of what you will have on the thirtieth day.

Imagine all of what you would miss out on if you quit too soon.

If you didn’t push your way through the Dip.

If you didn’t resonate with the tension of the Creative Gap.

The paradox of progress: it is long, slow and steady…and happens all at once.

That’s what it looks like when you get through the Dip, says Godin.

[The] superstar, the only choice.

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Apr 25, 2011

12 comments · Add Yours

This is such an inspiring post, Justine. Thanks!

I’m bookmarking this for the tough moments.


Great post. I never realized that so much progress happens at the tail end of our endeavors. Ironically, too, we spend so much time and energy on the wrong side of the dip. Once we get to the success part, it’s easy to fast-forward through it, not fully appreciating or even seeing ourselves as successful. Your explanation is eloquent and crystal clear.


This is one of my favorite posts to date. Thanks. I especially like the bit about getting used to discomfort. You really do have to push yourself to improve.


Thanks for this. I think I’m square in the middle of the Dip. I feel like I’m getting nowhere, so this is pretty relieving to read.
When I actually think about it, this is so true. Applicable in so many places.
I hope I reach the end of this Dip soon. I’m looking forward to it now.

Interestingly, I read somewhere that myelin forms more the older you get. If this is in addition to the myelin gained in the neurons firing or the same process, I don’t know.

Anyway, great post.


That’s great. I love the way you have explained that difficult place that we all have to go through to get anywhere (the Dip). Just brilliant!

Thanks for the Post!


Another great post. Looking forward to stretching a little more each day, falling forward, and getting up to do it again.


Another great post, and perfect for me to wake up to on Tuesday morning after the long weekend. Definite encouragement to keep going!


I think it sometimes helps to look at something other than writing. Like, as you say, piano playing. A lot of people can knock a tune out of a piano. Some will have even gone to the Royal Conservatory of Music and have passed their Grade 12 but how many of those will end up with a career as a concert pianist? Technical proficiency is only a part of it. There have been plenty of recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto but Jacqueline du Pré’s is still regarded as the definitive performance. This is why it will be reissued and reissued while others will be deleted and no one will bat an eye. It’s clearly not enough to get all the right notes in the right order and there are many books printed every year that do the literary equivalent of that but still end up being remaindered.


Following on from Jim’s comment I would point to a book by George Leonard first published in 1992 called ‘Mastery’. In it he urges everyone to “love the plateau” because that is where all the real learning takes place. He was a living example – taking up the martial art of Aikido in his fifties and when he died last year at the age of 86 he was a fifth dan. His approach (as I understand it) was to get on the mat every day regardless of whether you appeared to be moving forward or moving backwards. Seth Godin echos that when he tells you the most important thing to do is to ship – every day. Ship something. Write something. Paint something. Play something. If you have the courage to do that the rest takes care of itself.


Justine, You’ve done it again. You’ve come up with exactly the right message, exactly when I needed to read it. Because those threshold guardians are standing in my way and truly testing my resolve right now. Your post is helping me through. I’ve blogged about you at “Love My Muse” .
Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!


I’m getting this blog redesigned by a professional — FINALLY — and it *will* have threaded comments, which it NEEDS…

Thank you, beautiful people.

Paul — I actually did intend to refer to MASTERY — great book — but somewhere along the way I forgot. (I tend to do that.) It’s one thing I’m working on in my own life — to love the process and let go of the result. It makes a difference, both in the process — and the result.

Elizabeth — love that. thank you.


I have to agree with you here. It is not the circumstances that defeat us, but our own lack of faith.

However, I personally choose to ignore the Gap, at least subjectively. I recognize that it’s there, of course, but I refuse to try and analyze exactly where I am along it. Because that temptation is a failure in disguise. If I look at myself and think ‘Oh, I’m almost there,’ I won’t feel obliged to work as hard. And that would kill my writing–the closer I got to the end, the slower I would progress until my own self-confidence began pushing me backward.

So instead, I always picture myself at the beginning, maybe a few steps into it but not many more. I remind myself that no matter what I do, I’m still learning. Whether I’m climbing the slope or trekking the Plateau, I’m still walking forward.


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