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What I Learned From Ira Glass

A Few Thoughts On Creativity And Productivity From Ira Glass

I have been trying to fuel my creative side a bit more recently. Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can afford the extra free time. It’s a shame that creativity gets so little press. Productivity and hard work seem to constantly get pushed on us and creativity is left to be something that’s consumed such as music or streaming video.

I love going to theater productions but I am selective so I only do a handful throughout the year. If I lived in NY, I’d be attending every Broadway show – I have never been disappointed by them.

I recently attended a talk by Ira Glass from This American Life. He talked about 7 things which he has learned in his lifetime which were worth sharing. He started out in broadcasting at age 19, he’s 58 now – there is a lot this man has learned.


On Creativity

Let’s get right into a few things I took notes on that Ira shared with his audience. He talked about creativity and how to produce the kind of show that audiences would enjoy.

What stood out the most to me is that he never dismissed a story’s tangents as simply tangents. In fact, the tangents are what make the story so interesting. Even if his audience knows the outcome, it can make for an amazing production if the tangents are pursued and vividly painted for the audience.

To get 1 show on the air, him and his team would pursue multiple different shows, go down every rabbit hole and try to tease out the story from the individuals involved. However, more often than not, they wouldn’t be able to, which means that the show wouldn’t make for something worth publishing.

His own bias would urge him to keep the focus on the main topic but it’s not until he lets go of control and allows the storytellers to tell it exactly the way they want, that he gets something amazing.

For this reason, he thinks that it’s so much easier to work with children rather than adults. Adults are more reserved, they are afraid of consequences when they are about to share something and so hold back a lot more.


On Pursuing A Dream

Ira started out at age 19 and he played a few clips for us, commenting on how bad his voice was and how robotic he sounded. But he didn’t give up, he persisted because he loved what he was doing.

Money was never an issue, he just wanted to do what he loved. His income was absurdly low in the first decade of his career. I’m not sure what Mr. Glass makes now, but I’d venture that he would never, ever have to worry about an income with his breadth of talent and skills.


On Self Improvement

He worked full-time reporting events for NPR for some time but didn’t like how he sounded on the radio. He knew he could do better and wanted to enjoy listening to his own voice, which he didn’t at that time.

In order to improve and practice, he took on a side job with a friend at a smaller Chicago public radio station where he would practice his voice and intonations. He believes that is what finally got him to where he is now.

For a person who is working full-time, to take on one extra job, not for the income but to improve their skills voluntarily… that’s dedication. He mentioned that he recognized his potential to be good at this and so he took it upon himself to be better.

I don’t recall taking any courses when I was a resident or a young attending to improve my abilities in medicine. I don’t quite think I did the bare minimum but I never invested in myself. Finally, now that I have cut back drastically on practicing medicine, I am investing my time and money in order to become better at the things which I am weak in.


On Sacrificing In Order To Do What You Love

He had become a producer on NPR and getting all the assignments he’d ever wanted. He even mentioned that he was incredibly good at being a producer but the assignments/projects didn’t sing to him – it wasn’t what he wanted to do. To me, it seems like a huge sacrifice to leave what you’re good at in order to do something you’re passionate about.

When this opportunity came up to produce the This American Life, it wasn’t exactly a ripe show that he could step into. But that’s what called to him and he sacrificed a solid gig to pursue something he would love.

It’s so easy to just do what we’re good at, putting our heads down and going strong, trying to squeeze every last dollar out of our paycheck and disregarding what we really love. I know this is a big problem in medicine because I talk to my colleagues about this constantly. The fear of the unknown, the incredibly high income and the faces of our colleagues from the mere mention of something alternate, all keep us locked into our roles.


On Collaboration

Ira talks to so many different people about so many different things in order to find the next great storyline. But it’s not all for the show. Though he didn’t emphasize this, he collaborates with very other interesting individuals who may not have anything to do with radio storytelling.

Medicine can be a lonely profession. In the end, we are individually responsible for the patient and collaborating with others can be time-consuming or prove frustrating. Not only does this make us feel alone but it can also wear us out.

I don’t know how I would have found the passion or energy to go talk to an interesting salesperson in order to find out how I can better ‘sell’ my treatment plan to the patient. Honestly, I can’t even imagine who I would collaborate with in order to be more effective at what I do.


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