Long-term goals are wonderful things, and some of them are shiny enough to be enough, in and of themselves, to inspire a regular practice.
Other times the goals are more nebulous, and the temptations of the GravyHose are far more present and close. So rather than pull up the word processor you pull up Facebook, and rather than laying out the yoga mat you turn on Netflix. Hey, it happens, and there are times when an episode of Arrow is what you need more than writing an entry in your journal. And there’s a neat secret (that I’ll mention later) that is yet another reason not to beat yourself up when you just don’t feel like it.
But at the same time, I would like to share three things that help me reach the “Don’t Wanna – Did It Anyway” state of mind.
Check the Box!
I understand a lot of the ways evolutionary behaviorist explain things, but one that I don’t quite get is why humans like checking off things in lists. There’s something about that blank box or circle that makes you want to put a big green check mark or red X or Please fill in the circle completely when the time is right.
Has anyone tried selling books that are nothing but blank test forms, along with No. 2 pencils? Kind of like a cross between bubble wrap and a coloring book? Seems like that’s a missed opportunity…
Anyway, you can make your own. I’ve got a little row of seven circles each week in my bullet journal for my Morning Rituals of journaling and yoga, as well as my goals of drinking enough water each day and reminding a weekly Master Mind partner to move further towards their goals.
Does it always work? Nope. Notice that picture? That should be starting today, Monday, and you’ll notice that I haven’t checked anything off yet. But that’s just it: I’m motivated to do so. I’m about 65% on the water so far, I just sent the reminder (check!) and the yoga and journaling still has time to happen. Assuming I don’t let things distract me, the unchecked boxes will nag at me until I can fill them.
Sometimes a Bullet Journal isn’t obvious enough; my partner Natasha uses a dry-erase board on the refrigerator to use the same method for her goals. It really doesn’t matter if it’s written in sharpie on your arm or painted on your lawn in chalk; if you want to give yourself an easy nudge towards your practice, make an empty space that only the practice can fill.
Guilt By Association
The second method requires that you not be a sociopath. Simply put, tell people you care about that you’re going to do it. I mentioned that I started up this blog again because someone told me it helped them; I’ve heard that from others, and even have been given support via my patreon when I wasn’t writing. There are particular people who I know will read this, and I care about them, and that makes me write.
I asked my MasterMind partner to encourage me to do more drawing practice, preferably with an eye towards process instead of product, because I need to develop skills, not sellable materials. I will swear, and grumble, and come just short of pouting as I pull out the sketchbook and the pens to draw things that I don’t think are good at all – but I know that when they remind me next, I can triumphantly say Yes, I have drawn! I did the thing!.
Natasha and I even do weekly meetings just to set short goals and hold each other accountable for them. I should note that when I say that “guilt” is the motivating factor, it is not that she lays a guilt trip on me. That’s not her job. It’s the job of my own internal voice to be useful for a change and make me feel guilty if I haven’t done what I told her I would do.
Your kid. Your cat. Your future self. All four billion people on Twitter. Pick one, and let them know you’re going to do the practice. And then, when you’re feeling like it’s just too much, think about them being disappointed, because you have denied them the unique pleasure of knowing that they helped you get closer to what you want. Think of the sad eyes. The shake of the head, the slump of the shoulders.
Then do it.
The Improbable Life of Kathryn Joost
This is not my story to tell. Read the thread on twitter. And remember that the only way to get anywhere is step by step…and the next step is your next practice session doing whatever it is you need to practice.
Oh, and that neat secret? Well, it’s kind of related to those empty boxes in my Bullet Journal (aka “BuJo”). See, normally I don’t have trouble checking those off, because I do them first thing in the morning.
Today, though, we had to get on the road early for an 8-hour road trip. And that meant that I missed that window this morning. But that’s the secret:
There’s always another window.
When we get home, my yoga mat will be waiting there for me. My journal and a pen and a neat new chair to write in. And those boxes will be filled. So even though I’ve been spending most of the trip driving and singing along to musicals and reading sci-fi books, the practice will wait until the motivation catches up with me.
What’s your secret technique to Do The Thing when you Don’t Want To? These work for me, but the point is: whatever it is that kicks your tuchis into gear, do more of it.
Practice makes progress.
Yesterday I had an eep moment.
See, I’ve enrolled in a course called “Lettering with the Masters” from the amazing Heather Martinez (seriously, even if you’re not interested in lettering, just study her marketing funnel and deliverable videos and digital content. She really knows what she’s doing.)
The idea is that every month she interviews a “Rockstar” of the lettering/visual practice world, and you (the student) get the chance to ask the guests directly for input (or, if you miss the live broadcast, you get to see the re-broadcast).
I had gone through the first segment, where Corinna Keeling talked about her work as an urban artist using (mainly) the medium of chalk and the street. It has literally changed the way I write, sketchnote, you name it. My friend recently needed a sign with his last name on it to pick up his kids from school, and I eagerly dug out my brush pen as I confidently said “I got this…”
But…I’m new at this. I’ve probably practiced it for about an hour, tops. Sure, I’m trying to put it into practice wherever I can…but in spite of the tremendous confidence granted to me by a world literally designed for my convenience, I’m not that good at it yet.
The Terrible Challenge of Praise
I also am a firm believer in documenting your own process, and sharing the challenges and progression, which is why my Instagram for CreativeGrayVisual exists. There’s a thriving community of letterers, visual recorders & facilitators, and sketchnoters on the platform, and it’s inspirational and makes me feel a part of this community.
Yesterday my friends’ daughter (who we’re watching, along with her siblings, while their parents enjoy a well-deserved vacation) invited me outside to do chalk drawings with her. I seized the opportunity with perhaps more gusto than was warranted, resulting in the image you see above (in case you’re wondering, it’s half of a quote from Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and no, I was not about to put the second part of the quote on my friends’ porch).
Dutifully, I took a picture and posted it to Instagram, making a joke about being “Bert from Mary Poppins” and of course giving credit for the inspiration and style to Corinna Keeling.
Of course, she saw it. And she commented back: Swoon!
Not “Good job.Not “Keep it up”. ” Not “That’s an interesting start to a possibly legible style.” No, that was not just praise, it was praise that made me blush.
And instantly, the voices were in my head: Of course she said that, it’s social media, she’s protecting her brand. You know it’s a smudgy mess. She’s really laughing and showing her friends just how ridiculous that old guy in flyover country is to think he can emulate her style.
Thankfully, those voices are not so much “loud” in my head as they are “tinny and distant locked away in a glass jar in a pantry in my soul marked voices we do not listen to.”
Learning to Love the Journey
But I confess, the pantry is pretty damn full. I can see all the things I wish were better about that drawing, and at the same time I can see things that I really like about it. The challenge is to extend to myself and my early work the same love and compassion I would share with others – while at the same time keeping myself uncomfortable enough to stay in that zone of Deliberate Practice.
I like the piece. I love lettering, and creating things with my hands in a way that I’ve not done much of in my life. It’s not a matter of whether I love the things when I’m doing them.
The challenge is to love them when they’re done, even if they are imperfect, and even if – or perhaps because they are helpful signposts showing me the direction I need to go.
You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful“). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.
But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.
“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.
What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.
Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?
What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”
Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.
What’s Better Than Empathy?
Brace yourself: the answer is communication.
You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!
Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:
You need to also believe what they tell you.
Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,
I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.
That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:
That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.
Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….
You know, if it were me, I would…
Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.
And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.
Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake
Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.
Yet people are still unhappy. Why?
Because they don’t believe the other people.
All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!“
Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.
Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.
Putting My Money Where My Blog Is
Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.
See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).
I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.
The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.
Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.
And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.
Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.
But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.
So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…
Along with the lovely delusion that reading about a skill is the equivalent of learning it, there is the idea that any practice is better than no practice. Need to work on writing? Carry around a notebook and write a paragraph while you’re waiting for the elevator! Want to learn to sing? Put on the music in the car on the way to work! Need to exercise more? Do squats while you’re in line at Starbucks!
Aside from the fact that people may start looking at you funny, if your goal is deliberate practice, though, doing nothing can, in fact, be better than doing something. That’s because Deliberate Practice has to be mindful. You have to be entirely present – not thinking about work, not driving, not trying to figure out how to pronounce muffiacialatte.
It’s why Deliberate practice works – because you are paying attention to what you are doing. Not that it means that you’re doing it right, of course – but rather, there’s nothing to distract you from all the things you are doing wrong (remember, deliberate practice is also Not Fun).
When you’re “practicing” (quotes intentional) without paying attention to what you’re doing, you are letting all the bad habits and mistakes slip through, letting yourself zone out in the pleasure of the act. And hey, we’re all about pleasure here at Love Life Practice, but if you are trying to get better at a skill, letting yourself zone out is a pleasant kind of self-sabotage.
You’re better off finding other things to enjoy and do while you’re waiting. Try some mild creative exercises, like word puzzles or doodles or just letting your mind wander. Save the squats for when you can pay attention to the form, save the writing for when you can give the story the attention it deserves, and save the singing of the song you’re trying to get better at for when you can really hear and pay attention to the notes (On the other hand, go ahead and sing something else. The world needs more singing.
But Where Do I Find the Time, Gray?
Well, that’s the bad news.
You find it in the same place you find the time to do anything else you do: in the same pool of hours you and everyone else has.
And this is where I’m going to diverge from most personal development bloggers. I am not going to “just” you, or “simply” at you. You don’t just find more time. You don’t simply give something up easily so that you can do the practice time. You certainly can’t make more time.
You can only prioritize it.
The word prioritize literally means “make more important.” Which is pretty difficult when you’re a mother of three, or a single parent with a professional job, or struggling with illness or injury. There is a popular misconception that we all have lots of spare time that we are “wasting” on things like TV and social media – but for some, it is the brief respite that playing Two Dots gives us from the rest of the world that lets us get up and face our tasks later on.
No, you don’t “just simply” do anything. You agonize, you deliberate, you weigh, you consider, you feel guilty, and maybe you are able to claw a few minutes – or, by the grace of All That’s Sacred, a blessed few hours – to actually do the work of Deliberate Practice on the thing you are working towards.
Which, let’s remember, is Not Fun.
It is not easy for everyone to find the time to do Deliberate Practice. The stories you hear about people who have written books on gum wrappers and made fine art out of their children’s used popsicle sticks are the outliers, the rare exceptions, and while it’s fine to point out their dedication and tenacity it’s important to also acknowledge that they were the lucky ones.
So if you can’t find that time, please give yourself a break. Because this is where the good news comes in:
If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. – Hamlet
Or, if you want a slightly more modern version, there’s the Beatles: Let it be. Or maybe even more contemporary Bart Simpson: Dude. Chill.
The fact is that if you absolutely cannot brutally carve out the time for Deliberate Practice at some skill right now…it’s because you have more important things to do. Seriously, whether it’s working on your own health, caring for your partners, or doing some kind of other work, it’s entirely possible that you simply don’t have time for it.
Time is what keeps everything from happening at once – Ray Cummings
You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? – Stephen Wright
Those are two very important concepts to remember. The thing you are doing now? You will not be doing it forever. Time never stops, and that means that If it be not now, yet it will come. Trust that the thing that you want to do will either be waiting for you by the time you get to the point where you can do it – or you will have something else you want to do more.
Personally, it’s that last part of the quote from Shakespeare that I keep in mind: the readiness is all. What’s important is to be mindful of where you are now, and what you are doing. The rest of the quote explains why:
Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.
It’s another version of the “best laid plans” principle, or the simple fact that we are really bad at predicting what is going to happen, much less what’s going to make us happy.
That’s ok. The fun secret of mindfulness is that it is a pretty nifty experience, though I’m not sure I’d call it “happiness”. But that’s another post.
If you are tempted to try doing some deliberate practice, I wish you all the luck in the world. If you’re too busy, though, that’s ok too – as another philosopher-poet has pointed out.
You can afford to lose a day or two.
Why don’t you realize?
Vienna waits for you?
– Billy Joel
“I’m normally really precise. I did every step in the experiment exactly as it was supposed to go, every microliter measured…except, I did it in exactly the reverse order. It was a mistake that no one had ever seen before!”
”Oh, f*ck me! I just printed one thousand beautiful event postcards…with the wrong date on them.”
”Wow, these screen-printed notebooks look great! Let’s move them to the drying rack” – an improvised series of dowels & pvc laying across shelves – “to get a pic for instagram!” CRASH!
That last one was me, last week. We were able to dust off a few of the notebooks enough to make them presentable. But there was a moment when that crashing of the notebooks to the floor felt like the biggest failure. The voices started in the back of my head. Oh, what did you expect? You’re screenprinting in your girlfriend’s basement, how cliché can you get? Of course you’re going to mess it up…
Luckily, I have been writing a personal development blog for a few years now, talking about doing things like developing compassion and practicing self-care…so I was able to let the brief disappointment and fear of failure wash over and through me, and forgave myself for the mishap, laughed with my girlfriend about it (she saw the whole thing), and resolved to get better drying racks for the future.
Well. Sort of. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I went through the motions internally of forgiving myself, because I knew rationally that was what made sense, and going through the actions of laughing and figuring out how to make it not happen again allowed me to reframe the stupid – whups, that’s value judgement – the inefficient results of the experience.
But that’s not what gets the clicks for personal development bloggers, so we might as well go for some clickbait:
Three Easy Steps to Forgive Yourself
- Remember that you cannot predict what’s going to happen. Life is literally just one thing after another, and there is always a lot more going on around us than we actually know about. That’s why we can do things – we have an ability to focus on them, and filter out other things. That means that we are going to be surprised when the unexpected happens. If you need to, read the [list of inaccurate predictions] that Fast Company printed back in 2010, and imagine how much longer the list would be today.
- Imagine you saw someone’s kid do the same thing. This seems weird, but it’s kind of a shortcut to compassion. We have a hard time being compassionate with ourselves, and even sometimes with our own kids, but we tend to want to see other people treat their kids with compassion. So as your inner critic is ramping up the stream of vitriol, switch the scene to how you would expect a good parent to react to their kid making the same mistake. Hey! Now we know what happens when we do the experiment backwards! I never expected to learn that today – thanks! It’s also worth remembering how many great inventions were accidents. (I don’t actually trust that list, because it doesn’t include sticky notes, but whatever).
- Make a plan for what to do next. Sometimes that might be a fix for the problem; sometimes it may be changing things so as to reduce the chance of the mistake happening again; sometimes it’s just moving on to something else, because there’s no going back. Whatever it is, make it a concrete action that you can do. Move on, in time (not that you’ll have a choice in that) and if possible in place. Go somewhere else to figure out what to do next. Changing the environment will help your brain get out of re-living the mistake along with all the associated emotions.
Don’t Feel Ashamed. Feel Guilty
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort… I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to shame as tool for change. – Brené Brown
The key difference is that “shame” is a concept that is fundamentally connected to core identity, whereas “guilt” is instead connected to an action (which is why anyone who is “guilty” has to be “guilty of” something, whereas we usually frame the other as something like “you should be ashamed of yourself”).
Guilt is associated with responsibility. With acknowledging your contribution to what happens, and the efforts to contribute to what happens afterwards. It can be constructive, and it leaves room for moving beyond the mistake.
Try it out, this weekend. At some point there’s going to some shake-my-head facepalm moment, and when that happens, see if you can channel some compassion into your emotions.
It’s only three steps. And in case you’re wondering, it works just as well if you do them backwards, too.
I don’t normally call out my fellow personal development bloggers, but yesterday I read a post so headdesk-worthy that I knew, in an instant, that I had to write a response.
I won’t link to it here, but the gist of it was that we all spend so much time chasing the idea of “happiness” without knowing what it really is. Then he goes on to decide that the idea of figuring out why that is doesn’t matter:
Why do we do these things? To be honest, I don’t care what the exact reason is. I’m not a scientist. All I know is that it has something to do with history, culture, media, economy, psychology, politics, the information era, and you name it. The list is endless. Let’s just accept that. Most people love to analyze why people are not happy or don’t live fulfilling lives. I don’t necessarily care about the why.
Let’s paraphrase: I don’t actually have any knowledge about this, nor do care to take the time to get any. So rather than identify what we want to change, let’s just let speculation take the place of facts.
There are facts, by the way. People like Dan Gilbert and Brené Brown have done a lot of research figuring out the “why” of people’s happiness or lack thereof, and they’ve used that research to help find a few ways to help people be happier. And yes, one of those ways (indicated by the research of Dan) is to be of service to others. That has, in fact, made some people happy.
But it’s just one way. Not the way, and certainly not the “purpose of life.”
“The Useful Citizen”: a Dangerous & Stupid Idea
Of course, throughout history we have seen people who try to be useful. Look at the industrial revolution! Look at Manifest Destiny! At the invention of the automobile, and the pioneers and remember the Alamo…oh, wait. The Alamo was a bunch of Texans living in Mexico who were pissed off that they couldn’t own slaves. Well, maybe don’t look at that…in fact, those other things also weren’t so good.
And most definitely don’t look at the other system of government that tends to value people not for who they are but rather for what they can do. “ It reconfigured relations between the individual and the collectivity, so that an individual had no rights outside community interest.- Robert Paxton, defining Fascism”
But lest I get accused of taking things out of proportion (though in the current political climate, any discussion of fascism seems pretty relevant), let’s talk instead about the immense Dunning-Krueger trap that this idea of “a useful life” has built into it:
The idea that your purpose is to be useful predicates the idea that there are times when you are not useful. It promotes the idea that there are people who are, in fact, useless.
But who gets to decide? And when we say “useful”, the question also arises: useful to whom? I’m sure the people at a conservative political rally are very useful to the conservative movement; personally, I don’t find them very useful.
But remember, the Dunning-Krueger effect is about people who think they know more than they actually do. In other words, while I might not find them useful – I am almost certainly wrong.
The presumption, the arrogance, the ignorant overconfidence of thinking that you can tell whether anyone else is useful or not, or even whether your own actions are useful or not…it staggers the mind.
In the article, the writer suggests that instead of indulging in experiences like watching TV, going to a concert, or eating a fancy meal, we should occupy our time with tasks that would be “useful” to the people around us. I’m all for helping people, of course, but I’m wary of the arrogance of someone who thinks they know what someone else wants without taking the time to figure it out.
The author, if he’d taken the time to think about it, would probably have been better off to call the article “How to be happy by feeling like you’re useful. But that doesn’t get the clickbait.
Back to the point, it has been shown – repeatedly – that taking time to enjoy a fancy meal, to listen to music, to enjoy a good story, all of that is not only useful but it is essential to a healthy life. Oh, it also is useful, if you need to frame it that way, to the chef, the musician, and the actors, and everyone else engaged in producing these things – not because they’re useful, mind you, but usually because they make people happy.
What is the Purpose of Life?
Hate to break it to you, but my personal view is: there isn’t one.
Yep. Life does not have some grand plan, some ultimate framework of destiny in whose web we are all irrevocably entwined.
I don’t believe that for a second. And that’s great.
Because without some external purpose, the only rational thing to do is to live as well as you can. To enjoy things, to revel in this amazing and frustrating and beautiful world, to gawp in wonder at the cosmic coincidence that leads you into one magical moment after another.
Sometimes that’s a chord in a song.
It’s wiping a tear from a child’s face as they smile at the dinosaur bandaid you gave them.
It’s biting into a warm chocolate lava cake.
It’s feeling the burn in your legs as you help lift lumber into a truck.
It’s gasping as Supergirl is beaten by the villain on the TV.
It’s ink on paper, or pixels on a screen, or seeds in the earth, or words whispered in your ear.
The purpose of life is to live it.
If “feeling useful” is part of how you do that, great! But if you find satisfaction just laying there in the sun, enjoying the fact that you are alive – that’s great too.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There’s a profession I have to learn: graphic recording.
Like any profession, it’s practice is done by the application of specific skillsets in combination to achieve a certain goal – oftentimes set by a client. The ability to figure out what a client wants and then deliver it to them by deploying those skillsets in an efficient combination is what I think of as business.
I’m pretty good at that part of things.
Unfortunately, this is a new profession for me, and that means what I don’t have is the skillsets. Even worse, I can’t do what I usually do and read a book about the subject and then be competent (much like my reading a book about basketball – which none of my elementary school classmates ever did – did NOT make me King of the Court).
Nope, graphic recording skillsets – basics like lettering, mid-level like information design, and advanced level like facilitation and coaching – all require not just the book knowledge but also the doing of the thing.
And not just the doing: the doing repetitively.
Or so I thought. I began filling pages with repeated letters, aaaaaaa, bbbbbbb, cccccc…. And then, luckily, I listened to the book Peak by Anders Ericcson, and realized I was doing it wrong.
It’s Gotta Hurt, Buddy
Think of it: sitting down with a nice pen, a clean notebook, putting on some good music, making sure your Earl Grey is hot, and then letting the ink fill the paper with curves and lines of beautiful letters, letting your mind relax into the flow of the repetitive…
That vision of “practice” is a recipe for getting worse, not better. It’s a way to reinforce mistakes, learn poor technique, and minimize muscle memory (unless you’re Stephen King, you probably don’t write “Aaaaaaaaaa!!” very often).
In order to get the skills, I need to do deliberate practice. That’s different than what we usually call “practice”, or certainly what my piano teacher thought of as practice (You will sit there for an hour a day until you get better! Spoiler: I didn’t get better).
So great, I need to not “zone out”, I need to be focusing on writing letters in combinations, writing words, on my hand position and posture and learning the form of the stroke of a letter before thinking of the rhythm…
Except I can’t really do that, either, yet, because those are all things I don’t know. That’s where Mr. Ericsson really threw me for a loop: Get a mentor.
Whoa. What? I’m a 49-year old man. Whose gonna want to mentor me?
But that’s what it takes. If you want to get good at something, you have to let go of the myth of the “self-made man”, the reclusive inventor/artisan/genius who locks themselves up and emerges with a masterful set of skills.
Nope, deliberate practice is a collaboration. Which means I need to find teachers who do the thing I want to do, and do it well, and learn from them.
That’s a hard thing for a solopreneur like myself.
But it gets worse.
Feet First, Over My Head
My general practice in most things (aside from actual firearms) is something like “fire, aim, ready.” If I’m going to do something, I will read all about it…and then just go do it. The steps that I get impatient with are the “learning” steps – the plans, the exercises, the drills, the slow and incremental improvements. Drives me bonkers.
But there’s no way to rush lettering. There’s no way to “book learn” how to turn a person’s idea into a clear infographic. Instead, you have to set up a clear practice schedule, with measurable qualitative feedback (preferably from people smarter than you – see “mentor” above) and then go out of your way to fix whatever errors were made.
Worse, when you get something right, you need to leave it there and push for something harder. Only the practice that is on the edge of your current skill will actually improve that skill. That’s why, when asked if they enjoyed practicing, most top performers in any discipline said “no, not really. Not at all.” When I get a font right, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it, revel in that particular new skill…but I need to deliberately look for the next font or technique, the one that scares me, that I have a difficult time with.
I need to suck at it, in other words, and if I’m not working at something I suck at, I’m not getting better.
Time is Inescapable. Comfort is not.
It’s a slow process, in other words, and for someone like me, used to “instant gratification” in terms of skills, it sounds awful. I’m not quite at the pouty lip/stompy foot/“I want it NOW! whine, but close.
Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. – “Peak”
Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
It gets worse. If I get into a thing – a hobby, a book, an essay, a hike, a workout – I tend to push myself. I want to do it all the time. I want to immerse myself in it, and believe me, just google “hand lettering” and you’ll see there’s a lot of water in that particular ocean – and that’s just one skillset. It would be really easy to go “ALL GRAPHIC RECORDING ALL THE TIME. And that would be the quickest way to expertise, right?
Turns out, not so much. Mr. Ericsson’s research indicates that you need to break up your focused, uncomfortable with periodic breaks to recover. That’s right. Are you a workaholic? Are you proud of doing That Thing for eight hours straight? Are you living on caffeine and obsession?
You’re doing it wrong. Well, let’s take the value judgement out of it: you’re doing it (brace yourself)…inefficiently.
Ouch. That stings. Suddenly not only do you have to consistently schedule time to do things you aren’t good at, but you have to schedule time not to do those things if you want to get better at them.
Didn’t Wanna. Did It Anyway.
Thankfully, there is plenty of the very first element that Mr. Ericsson says is required for Deliberate Practice: motivation. I look at the work of people like Sam Bradd, Kelvy Bird, Brandy Agerbeck, Mike Rohde, and I think: I want to do that. They have a way of combining art with communication with information synthesis that is as thrilling to me as Baryshnikov dancing or Kameron Hurley writing.
I want to do that.
So I will schedule, I will letter and sketch and suck at it and suffer through the painful awkwardness of the deliberate practice…because they did, and that means there’s a path to that future me that is doing it too.
Tonight I got to take some direct action in the service of protecting the privacy of the people who I serve. We were all at the meet & greet before an open space that’s I’m facilitating tomorrow, a time for people to learn together about how to have stronger, more communicative, and more intimate and trusting relationships.
And someone was in the parking lot, videotaping license plates.
That’s not the most egregious breach of privacy ever, of course. While the person was on private property, these were cars that were easily visible from the street. Still, while there may have been little legal reason not to record the license plates, there certainly was a moral breach of privacy going on. To quote a recent movie about privacy, It’s not that I have anything to hide. I just don’t have anything I want to show you.
My part was simply to do my best to be right in front of the camera, to be recording the person who was recording, and and also to simply continually question Why are you doing this? What reason do you have to be on private property recording people’s license plates without their permission?
The person eventually left, without any physical altercation. And while I am not happy that it happened, there’s a small bit of satisfaction that when my clients’ privacy was threatened, I literally did my best to shield them.
But you don’t always get to be that direct.
The Heroes of the Bench
Recently my partner and I were contacted as possible transport to help bring a child, separated from parents at the border by the recent policies of ICE, to a Chicago court hearing. As it turned out, they found alternative transportation, so we didn’t go. But the attorney involved sent me a note, which I’m going to paraphrase because, in case you missed the first half of this post, privacy.
Your writing helps remind me that in order to keep doing the work my clients need me to do, self-care and family-care have to come first. This blog helps ground me. I didn’t do that much my first year of practice, and that’s part of why many people who do this kind of work burn out and quit. Every day I am mindful of how I can take care of myself and continue to work effectively for the people who need me.
That person is literally fighting the good fight. There are few jobs more noble or essential beyond reuniting a child with their parents. We write stories about this all the time, make movies, thrill to the idea. I think that both my partner and I were a little disappointed that we didn’t get to drive the child to Chicago, because then we would have been part of this story.
But then the attorney gave me the gift of letting me know: I am a part of the story. Not directly – but that’s ok. In fact, that’s better, because it’s centering people like me that got us into this mess to begin with. To know that I can be a support for the kind of person who does this work – that is an honor beyond just about any I can think of.
And it’s much more satisfying than having to dodge in front of a camera from a person trying to invade others’ privacy.
Which is why I’m back, and while I’m late, I’m on schedule to write this blog three times a week. I hope, in some way, it helps you get through the tough times as well.
Thank you, dear reader, for being here.
Are you familiar with Hicks’ Law?
Also known as the Hicks-Hyman law, it basically states that the more choices you face, the longer it will take you to make a decision. In my house, we would call this the Netflix-Hulu effect: with so many different shows to watch (or watch again) we spend more time shuffling through menus and previews than actually enjoying the shows.
There’s an insidious side-effect of an abundance or growth mindset that allows the H-H law to hijack your brain. It goes something like this:
- “I’m going to reject the zero-sum mentality – the world and life are full of choices and resources, and I can even leverage my bad experiences into growing new things!”
- “Yes! I can do anything! I can become a coach! A programmer! A yoga instructor! A screen printer…a graphic recorder…a chef…a scrum master…um…wait…”
- “Ok, now, there are too many choices. And time is wasting! The available paths are infinite, but time and money and energy are not. I’m not getting any younger!!”
This is basically where I found (and, to be fair, still occasionally find) myself. When you embrace a mindset full of possibilities, it’s like a Netflix of your potential life choices. And that can definitely be paralyzing.
Design Thinking to the Rescue
Of course, there are a lot of resources out there designed to help you make that choice…so many, in fact, that the Hicks-Hyman Law once again can come into effect, with book after podcast after TED talk after blog post giving advice, to the point where you again wonder: which one should I pick?
Let me recommend one, because it’s the one that reminded me of an important fact (which I’ll get to soon). The book is called “Designing Your Life”, and it’s by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They’ve talked a lot on podcasts and yes, TED Talks, so you can get the gist of what they say online, but it’s the book itself – and actually forcing myself to do the accompanying exercises and worksheets – that really made their way of thinking work to help me narrow my choices and escape the Hicks-Hyman trap.
“Design thinking”, as they teach it at Stanford in their class of the same name, is basically a several step process that includes things like creating an “Odyssey Plan” and more. Rather than do them the disservice of trying to sum them up, I’m going to simply strongly suggest you get the book, and work through it bit by bit. The first half will feel silly, perhaps, or even just the same-old-exercise kind of thing…but the second half of the book made me feel somuch better about the place I’m at, and I’m glad I kept going with their ideas.
The Big Secret
And what was that important thing they reminded me of, that helped me stop stressing about what would be the Best Choice for my next career? It’s simply this:
It doesn’t really matter.
OK, ok, they didn’t quite put it that way. They were more like “Stop worrying about making the “best choice”, and realize that there are lots of “good” choices. All you need to do is pick one of them. Even better, you can pick it, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you can pick a different one.”
Now, obviously there is a bit of an assumed privilege there: when I was a single Dad raising my daughters and on welfare, I did not have the space or the luxury to pick and choose the way I do now. The book still would have been helpful, but would I have had the time to read it? Doubtful.
But right here, right now, I have the luxury of reduced obligations and an abundance of time. That means this book – and the choices I’m prototyping right now – helped me get past the obstacle of the Hicks-Hyman law and get things done.
I hope, whatever choices you have, that you can find a way to remember: it’s not about making the right choice. It’s about making one good choice, and trusting that there are a lot more where that one came from.
Some Notes on Starting from Scratch
When was the last time you were a beginner at something?
For me, it’s been a while. I’ve enjoyed the experience of being not only good at most of the things I did but also so busy doing them that I really didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. Often when I would delve into things that pushed the edges of my skillset – blues guitar, for example, or computer programming, or sketching – I would be enjoying myself right up until that little voice in my head said “Hey, dude, you gotta pay the rent, and this isn’t going to do that – better get back to what you’re good at.
And then I’d do that, and just accept that I “wasn’t very good” at whatever had momentarily distracted me from my Work That Paid the Bills.
Until, of course, the Work didn’t. Or, at least, not on a stable enough basis, and I realized – about a month or so ago – that I need to find a different Work.
In other words, I have to start over. Just shy of half a century old, and I’m looking at what we personal development types call a “career pivot.”
I’m starting from scratch, in other words, working on being a newbie, on building even the most basic skillset in a career field where there are shining stars and people who create things of such beauty and competence that I could just weep.
Me, I’m not quite at “adequate” yet. I’m a rank beginner.
The Space to Be a Beginner
There’s certainly a level of privilege involved in being able to do this. If I had four small mouths to feed, or an oppressive mortgage, I’d definitely not have the room to be a “beginner” – I’d need to find something that drew on my current skillset in a way that brought in immediate cash. The thing about that kind of work is that it rarely aligns directly with your personal goals and hopes – and that’s ok. That’s part of being an adult, accepting that there are needs and responsibilities beyond yourself.
I talking with some other people who had gone through similar transitions, and noticed a theme: regret. Given the choice between a “safe” career (whatever that means these days) and taking a chance on being bad at something for a while, even the people who took the safe route were wistful about what might have been. They never regret taking the “responsible, mature” route – they simply wished that could have included their dreams as well.
I’m at a point where I have some room to be a beginner…and I’m gratefully taking advantage of that, beginning to train as a graphic recorder – perhaps even, eventually, a graphic facilitator (at that point my expertise in facilitation may dovetail back into the job, but that’s a long way off).
It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s even fun, sometimes.
But it’s been a while since I’ve been bad at something. And it’s not a fun place to be.
The Discomfort of Conscious Incompetence
A social worker friend of mine framed things perfectly for me:
When you start something, you’re in a state of “unconscious incompetence.” You’re bad at it, but you don’t care, because you don’t know it – it’s just fun. Then as you learn more about it, you start to understand just where your weaknesses are – and you get into the state of “conscious incompetence” while you develop the skills but you know just how bad you are at them. That’s not a fun place to be.
That’s exactly it. The number of things I need to work on, the separate skillsets from “basics of lettering” to “dynamics of large-group facilitation” is daunting.
In case you’re wondering, there’s two more phases to what she was talking about. There’s the point where you are able to do the skills as long as you’re concentrating – that’s “conscious competence”. And past that is when you no longer have to think about it, you simply are good at a thing – “unconscious competence.” That’s where experts are, and why they often make the worst teachers – they forgot how hard it can be to do things, because it’s no longer hard for them.
I used to think I was pretty humble. Why, I was one of the most humble people I knew, especially within my demographic, because I was so humble that…Oh. Wait.
That’s been the side lesson in this new career path. It’s a crash course not only in accepting that there are things I am not good at but also that the things I need to learn are in spaces where I need to just shut up and listen to people smarter than me. We live in a culture that is pretty much designed so that people who look like me don’t have to be in situations like that. Our mythology – Iron Man, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia, Tim Ferris – is that the True Man will not only learn the skills of the different cultures he visits, but he will excel at them, becoming a leader, and in a fraction of the time that most take to develop mastery.
This is not that story. I’m not going to fill these posts with shortcuts or three-step listicles* or clickbait titles.
But I will be talking about things like Deliberate Practice, and training habits, and the joy of developing better visual representations of abstract concepts. There will also be more than a little about markers, pens, paper, notebooks, and probably a lot of blue tape.
Beginner’s mind sucks. But it also carries with it all the anticipation of a long journey into an exciting and foreign land, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
* except for things that actually take three steps.