Now that we are mobilizing as a Creative Army, releasing our Creative Beasts and getting ready to change the world with our paintings, music and words, I need to throw a little cold water on you. Sorry to break the news: getting good at a creative pursuit is H-A-R-D. It can be really discouraging when you pick up a guitar and practice for a week or two and still don’t sound like Bruce Springsteen, it’s really easy to move onto other things. (After all, this is supposed to be fun!) And now, my research is telling me that neither talent nor infinite practice matters. Chances are being born with a lot of talent or being a someone who practices night and day will not make you any better at your chosen pursuit.. Bummer? Yes, but there is a great big, drive a bus through size loophole.
First, which do you believe? People who have mastered something have practiced harder and longer than anyone else, and their hard work has paid off? Or, do you believe that we all have a level of natural ability that acts as a ceiling for how far we can go at any pursuit? These contradictory views, it turns out, are both somewhat true. Even the most talented people have to put in the time to master their pursuit, whether it be Jerry Rice on the gridiron, Tiger Woods on the links or Bill Gates at the keyboard. Genius helps, but sweat equity helps more. Talented people who don’t have drive and passion do not get as far as people who put in the time, no matter how easily something initially comes to them.
I’m reading “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and it has already influenced the list of 5 things I generate and follow every day to achieve my creative goals. Geoff explains his attempt to improve at golf in a way I can truly identify with, I was a decent golfer for about 30 years and, despite my obsession with practice, I plateaued, I could not improve past a certain level. I finally decided that I had a better way to spend my time and walked away from the game. My problem wasn’t one of talent or not practicing; it was not practicing properly. Hitting balls on a range for three hours and making whatever adjustment seems appropriate is not really effective practice. Neither is playing songs I already know on my guitar or writing about stuff without doing the proper research. “Activity”, as John Wooden said, “is not the same as achievement.” Most of us don’t practice with a purpose, we don’t work on the areas in which we need to improve, we don’t prepare ourselves for every situation we might encounter. Masters do. They don’t look at practice as “play”.
People who are masters are not always the people we would consider the most talented. Colvin makes a pretty good case that even the world’s two most famous prodigies, Mozart and Tiger Woods were the children of parents who put them in an environment to insure success. They maximized their ability because they started putting in their time at a very young age.
As we pick up new pursuits later in life, it is good to remember that nothing replaces putting in the time, and, mathematically, we don’t have the time we used to have.
If putting in the time is so crucial, how do we maximize it? Colvin says the secret to success is not just practice, but “Deliberate Practice”. Deliberate Practice is practice designed to improve a certain area of your craft. It is not always “fun”. Deliberate Practice puts us somewhere between our “Comfort Zone” and our “Panic Zone”, in an area of intense focus and concentration, the “Learning Zone”. Deliberate practice is practice with a specific goal to master an aspect of our craft that we have not yet been able to master.
In essence we have to identify our weaknesses, and work on them, not our strengths. Let me give you a few examples from my life, things I’m changing now, as a result of reading this book: I work out every day, but I enjoy working on my body parts that are already muscular (my arms and legs), I don’t like to work on my abs. Guess what needs the most work? On my guitar, I love playing songs I already know. For a long time, the idea that I could get my instrument to make any noise was good enough for me. Now that I have plateaued, I realize that I need to get as far out of my comfort zone as possible and stretch if I want to show any improvement. So, I’m doing sit ups and committing to an hour a day of guitar “practice” from DVD lessons. I am welcoming the uncomfortable instead of avoiding it. I understand that the ONLY way to improve is to be REALLY uncomfortable, at least for a while.
Mastering something that challenges us is part of the fun anyway, getting feedback that shows we are actually improving is glorious.
Hard work and repetition are not always fun. That’s why it is crucial that you pick a creative outlet that is of your own calling, one that you truly love. Why do kids hate music lessons? Because their parents are “making them” take the lessons. Sure, some parents (and kids) get lucky and find their passion early and blossom. The kids who play baseball, take violin or go to math camp only because their parents “make them” are never going to have the desire to put in the time to excel. If it doesn’t work for kids, it SURE isn’t going to work for adults. We have to many other things to do instead of putting in the time to master something that isn’t our passion to begin with.
Stretching is not “fun”. I can’t tell you how many times I am playing guitar scales when I hear a few notes and begin picking out a song that I recognize. Fun? Yes. Practice? No. Having a teacher who can recognize your weaknesses and help you through them is a good option. Self honesty is even better. Repetition is important, muscle memory is a good thing, yet, at the same time, we don’t want to be totally “Automatic”. We want to stay “mindful” in our creative pursuit, to see and hear with “new eyes and ears”. Creativity requires that we stay fresh, our technique can be “automatic” but our mind should stay alert.
I’ll be telling you more about this soon, I think adopting a discipline of Deliberate Practice is a good way to avoid the inevitable frustration that comes with learning something new. Learning to embrace the uncomfortable, to “feel the burn” mentally is the only way that we will get better at our creative pursuit.