triteBurley Oak Brewery owner Bryan Brushmiller has been known to say, “The only thing keeping us from greatness is goodness.” His central point is that, often when things are going well, it’s harder to find the incentive to push even harder. But, in this week’s Todcast, we look at it another way. We stop at being good, especially in the arts, because the space between good and great is too intimidating and, often, too fraught with the possibility of humiliation.

There is a safety in being good at something that separates the serviceable from the extraordinary. It is, I think, the willingness to be bad. We’ve all been at the point where we realize we’re onto something novel or extraordinary then tweak a project one time too many. We see the finished product’s potential but not the way to get there, so we tinker, trying to find a pathway until we make it unintelligible.

Sometimes, the potential for greatness is an illusion, and only through unpacking an idea do we figure it out. Most times, however, we just can’t get there. We fall short of the great and end up at mediocre; like a faded athlete suddenly faced with a marathon, we don’t have the juice to get the job done because we haven’t properly trained.

Being able to find or force a pathway from the OK to the brilliant takes practice. Practice means failure. It means committing atrocious mistakes and learning from them, taking a chance and failing spectacularly, regularly.

In my experience, it has to do with being willing to be obvious and even trite. I’m a naturally aggressive and snide hater. It is reflexive. In the majority of cases, when I see something intolerably bad, I have the good taste, or at least enough sense of self-preservation, to let it pass. That is, I keep my derision to myself.

When the something in question is in my head, though, when I have an idea that is initially trite or hackneyed, my creative white blood cells attack and kill it. I humiliate myself into submission, mocking the young idea internally until I drop it. It isn’t self-loathing, so much as it is a reaction to the world around me. I see (or read) people being awful and do not want to be in their company.

The creative world can be divided between four kinds of people. There are pure and actual geniuses. People who are talented and often great with the occasional misfire. People who are consistently awful or boring and don’t know it, and, people between the former and the latter. I put myself, and most of us, really, in this group. I am perfectly serviceable and occasionally interesting. I am never great but also never (or rarely) hackneyed.

For people like me, the trip from reliable meh-ness to reliable greatness requires taking chances we normally mock. It requires more and more catastrophic failures than we generally are willing to chance. I often wonder what it’s like to be that guy that is so awful but doesn’t know it. I am terrified I am that guy who thinks he’s in on the joke rather than the butt of it. But when you meet these people, they seem perfectly happy. Like a particularly sheltered, dim-witted child, they are confident in their abilities and satisfied with their results, beyond reason or cause. Ignorance certainly is a key to greatness, but it is also the key to laughing-stock-hood. Those of us with the wisdom to know the difference avoid inclusion in one of these clubs at the expense of the other.

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