Getting Expert Instruction—The Second Pillar of Improvement

Image by h.koppdelaney (Creative Commons)

This is the second instalment of a series called: the Four Pillars of Improvement. There are four ingredients that can help any creative or artist get better at what they do. They may seem obvious to some, they sure do to me, but either way they work. By enhancing each “pillar,” we will undoubtedly sharpen our skills, broaden our creative potential. The first article was about the importance of acquiring knowledge. You may want to read it before moving to today’s article, which is about the importance of getting a mentor.

I’ll admit: many artists/ writers/ musicians/ photographers were self-taught. They didn’t have mentors. They ignored what others told them to do, how others told them to create, and instead radiated their own unique style.

I respect that independent path to success, that self-reliant spirit, but I don’t necessarily recommend following it. The reason is because many self-taught artists were also inherently talented, or gifted. I’m not talented, nor am I gifted. So I need lots of outside help and direction to get smarter, to get better at my craft.

For those of us who aren’t geniuses, what we need is an instructor. An expert instructor—who’s more skilled than you and I—can teach us so many things that we can’t teach ourselves. They can help bring us to that next skill level. They can tell us what we’re doing wrong. They can see certain bright spots and advantages that we can’t see, because we’re too close to the work.

Acquiring knowledge—teaching yourself the rules and history of your domain—is tremendously valuable. But an expert can help us apply that knowledge. They can help us interpret that knowledge in a different way. Furthermore, they can assign us specific exercises to develop our areas of weakness.

In other words, an expert can teach us to use the knowledge we’ve acquired. So don’t be reluctant to search out a mentor. Sidney Crosby still has trainers. So does Tiger Woods. Because the artist, or the athlete, is simply too close to his or her game to see things objectively, to catch his or her blemishes before they aggravate and worsen.

This is why art school is (arguably) very valuable for creatives and artists—regardless of whether MFA degrees lead to jobs or not. I may decide in the near future to do an MFA in creative writing, not to catapult myself into a cool career, but to work side-by-side with writing experts—or, at least, writers with more expertise than me.

If school isn’t an option for you, you might consider getting a mentor some other way. Remember: a mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be physical; they can be mental, i.e. you can get a teacher and learn from them by reading their books. For me, when I pick up Stephen King’s On Writing, he becomes a kind of personal mentor in my head, one who’s advice I can turn to year after year. Ideally, getting a real instructor to help you face-to-face would probably help you more (but that option’s not for everyone).

Getting an expert/ mentor is the second pillar of improvement. Acquiring knowledge is the first. There’s two more—action and feedback—that we’ll look at in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.


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