The Delta

I had a conversation with a young and very talented artist yesterday. After seeing her illustrations so vivid of life and colors, I asked her what motivates her to create. She said “being able to transform what I see in my head to the canvas is really satisfying. In the beginning, there’s always this discrepancy of what you wish it looks like and what it looks like.”

The discrepancy that she described inspired me to make up this variable deltato benchmark one’s creative journey. The delta is the difference between a creator’s imagination and reality. I listed three ways of interpreting delta.

Large negative delta is when the reality is less than one’s imagination, resulting in work that is subpar to one’s expectation. This is the inevitable stage that all creatives go through when embarking on a new endeavor. It’s the moment when what you deliver is just so much more inferior than what you’ve imagined, and it’s unsettling and disheartening by such drastic difference.

“This is not my vision,” you think.

Most people give up not being able to neutralize this delta, even if they can see tangible progress of this delta getting smaller over the consistent practice. For those at this stage, the best advice is to “keep at it.” Show up consistently, and do the work. One of the only useful trick to accelerate progress at this stage is to be extremely intentional and mindful and ask lots of “why’s,” so you are not just working hard, but working on the right thing.

Small delta (or zero) is when the reality almost identically matches one’s imagination. It might take a while to get there, but the gifted can get there a bit faster. A lot of creatives that I know are happy, or complacent, remaining at this stage since one can make a living with their craft. This stage is where most craftsmen reside, and it can generate a great sense of fulfillment and enjoyment. I want to acknowledge the spirituality in crafting. However, I want to point out some potential danger at this stage.

Creating art for art’s sake is a self-indulgent act. It’s not only dismissive of the role that an artist could play to make a bigger impact, and even more problematic if the message being created isn’t benefiting the system at large. A steadfast focus on honing one’s craft can inevitably lead to comparing one’s craft to someone else’s in the field. Peter Thiel made a concise summary on this issue: “competition can make people stronger at whatever it is they’re competing on. But it’s also quite possible we’ll lose sight of what’s truly valuable.” In other words, the reality that the creators think they are making might not be the actual reality.

A starting point of breaking off the stage is asking questions like how do I make my work more impactful? I’m assuming that you’d want your work to be impactful, and I want to argue that impact is being useful for the people. This “usefulness” is not defined by the utility in a literal sense, the way that hammers or Uber can be useful. Instead, it’s “useful” in shaping culture by creating behaviors and beliefs.

There are generally two ways that a creative person can be handy in our time. One way to be useful is to create for problem-solving. It’s a direct way to develop solutions for problems either within an organization or independently. This can mean entrepreneurship or creating products in a larger org. Another way is to create for advocacy. It’s an indirect way to inspire and motivate others to get better at what they do as well as shedding light on problems worth solving. For example, creating an interactive showroom for consumers to reflect on environmental issues when they are shopping.

Large positive delta is when the reality is a lot bigger than our imagination. The work has transcended the creative process and started to spread, and as a result, people start to benefit from it — the work is now useful. It’s the tips and tricks that masters don’t share because they don’t want to, but merely because they can’t. This is a reward for those that progress consistently while not complacent of simply making for making’s sake. At this stage, you are on the rise to mastery. When a song goes viral and people start to remix a sad song into dance music, or when a product goes viral that the engineering team could barely catch up. People will begin understanding the lyrics a million ways and to hack your product to do ten different things. At this stage, as a creator, you’ve reached a point that your art is becoming more significant than yourself and has become useful for the people; in tech, they call this “product-market fit.”

Another aspect of this delta formula is how people have different default values, to begin with. Some people have abundance in imagination or are better at craft; they’re usually considered the gifted ones. Gift only manifest at the very beginning and the very end of one’s creative career. But most people who have abundance in imagination have a hard time even getting to the stage where reality is near that imagination, and most people who are blessed with craft might not bother to extend their vision further. The right approach, therefore, is to (1) expand one’s imagination with new information and perspectives while (2) consistently honing one’s craft to match such vision, with (3) an understanding that there’s a possibility that this could turn into something bigger than itself.

The delta only represents one facet of the creative process: how closely can one create in accordance with one’s vision. It’s a good variable to help develop a certain degree of self-awareness.

The science of creative work has been studied by many, but there hasn’t been that many that are both applicable, universal, and inclusive. I hope to develop more tools and framework to help creatives not just in the traditional field, but in business, technology, and any area really. The next time a product person or an artist asks why their work didn’t come out the way they wished, I hope this could be applicable to both.