Does Your Work Stink?

Does Your Work Stink?

Over a year ago, I gave a speech on the future of education at Madison College. I’m still shaking my head over this, because … well, it stunk. I had spent weeks preparing, refining my speech, trying to make a new presentation a little better. A little less bad.

But when I walked off the stage, I knew it in my heart: I was capable of better.

I’ve had this feeling again recently, in this space in this magazine. I’ve tackled a few issues—Scott Walker and education—and it’s clear that my columns aren’t always the clear-headed essays I think they are.

How do I know? Because a few of you have told me.

Does this bother me? Sorta. Okay, a lot.

So I’ve had to sort it out. And what I’ve realized is there are two things going on, two things that all of us deal with at one time or another. The first is that communication is the responsibility of the sender. If my columns aren’t clear, that’s on me. So I have to work harder. To be more clear.

The other problem is that I want to be liked.

On the road to being a “professional,” we all have to figure out how much we are willing to do—or sacrifice—to be liked. On one end of the continuum is Steve Jobs. He didn’t give a flying frankfurter whether people liked him or not. Which has given a lot of readers of his biography license to act like jackasses to their underlings. (Memo: Acting like a jerk doesn’t make you a Steve-Jobs-Apple-genius.)

On the other end of the continuum are folks like me—folks who want to be liked. This is not solely a female trait. I can name dozens of Madison men who desperately want to be liked—but won’t admit it unless you’ve drunk them under the table on a Saturday night. (You know who you are.)

No matter how much we want to be liked, no matter how hard we work at our craft, there will be times when our work just … plain … stinks. When it misses the mark. When it upsets people.

And that pain you get in your gut when you realize it was bad? That’s a karmic Kung fu to your solar plexus, the universe taunting you, saying, “Hey baby, how badly do you really want this?”

Because if you really want it—if you really want to develop as a writer, or earn a heartfelt round of applause, or be the boss you’re capable of being, or finish that proposal, or raise that $9 million—then doing substandard work is your wake-up call. Your chance to double down. To say, “That wasn’t my best, but dammit, I know it’s in me.”

Ira Glass, narrator of the public radio show This American Life, has something to say about work that stinks:

“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, 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 … 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 … 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 … It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So whether you’re a young professional in the early years of your first career or a mid-lifer transitioning to a brand-new gig or the I-always-wanted-to-be-an-entrepreneur type who finally went out on your own, I say to you: You will not always be liked; your work will sometimes suck eggs. But that is the moment to rededicate yourself, to work harder, produce more and become the craftsperson you know you can be.

As we say in Wisconsin, “Forward!”

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year. Contact Rebecca Ryan at

Find more NEXT columns .