Embracing the Pain of Deliberate Practice

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.

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