Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Creative Commons)
In the last few posts, we’ve looked at ways to improve our skills as artists. I call these methods “pillars of improvement”, and there’s four of them. So far, we’ve covered the importance of gaining knowledge, getting an instructor, and taking action. Getting feedback is the final stage. So let’s look at that now.
We can attain immense knowledge, seek out good instruction, and perform daily action. But without feedback, we won’t know how well we are progressing.
Feedback can either be constructive or destructive, i.e. person can praise your work or criticize it. You and I can learn and grow from both kinds of criticism.
Image by hannahtashkovich (Creative Commons)
This is the third instalment of a series called: the Four Pillars of Improvement. In the first two posts of this series on how to improve your skills, we’ve learned two lessons: get knowledge and get an instructor. If you’ve taken this advice seriously, you’re ready to deeply study your craft. You’re ready to find an instructor and have them guide and train you.
Once you get into the habit of doing these things—studying your craft often and learning from a mentor—it’s time to do.
The first two stages are thinking stages. This is the doing stage.
Taking action involves applying what you’ve learned through your study, through your coaching. Try to write a song from scratch. Try to paint something worthy of recognition. Try your hand at writing a short story.
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.
Image by rahuldlucca (Creative Commons)
Have you ever wondered whether you lack what it takes to become excellent at what you do? Have you ever doubted your potential for greatness?
I doubt my skills all the time. I’m a writer. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be an exceptional writer. Regardless, I still want to do everything I can to get better.
If you’re like me and from time to time you doubt your abilities, doubt what you have to offer, no need to worry. Regardless of how unskilled you are right now, there’s a realistic way to undeniably refine your skills.
There’s a formula that you and I can follow.
And it has four key pillars. Here it is:
Knowledge + expert instruction + dogged action + feedback = improvement.
I know, sounds pretty obvious. And it is. But who cares. Even your loftiest of dreams can be accomplished if you diligently and persistently follow this formula.
Image by Stephen A. Wolfe (Creative Commons)
Be intentional about improving your skills—that’s the point I want to communicate in todays article.
I learned this lesson after reading Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin—a book about achieving excellence through something he calls ‘deliberate practice’.
Unfortunately, many creative people don’t practice deliberately.
They just ‘practice’. They just do their work.
They go through the motions, put in the hours—without sweating. And they think that by passively pounding on their craft over and over, they’re improving.
Who knows—maybe they are. But they’re likely not getting much better.
The mistake is this: ‘having an awesome idea and letting it rot in your head for months, even years, until it perishes completely.’
Has that ever happened to you?
Well, it has to me. I’ve had tons of ideas over the years and sadly let many of them R.I.P.
I’ll call it Idea-Idleness—a period of inactivity in the creative process that, if left unchallenged for too long, will kill off your awesome ideas.
In other words, the longer you wait to act on an idea, the more likely it becomes that you’ll never use that idea.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
For self-actualizing creatives, letting an idea germinate off to the side while they work on other projects is necessary; they have so many ideas and can only work on one at a time.
But for the Creator Who Isn’t Creating, waiting for better circumstances or more resources to act on an idea is nothing more than an excuse to avoid either hard work or exposure.
It’s great to write down your ideas and let them harvest on their own for awhile, but only if you’re working on some other idea in the meantime. If you catch yourself with a notebook full of awesome dreams, but you’re not acting on any of them in the present, then you’re engaging in Idea-Idleness.
Here’s usually how an awesome idea dies.
Today’s article is a response to a reader’s question about how to acquire powerful self-discipline. If you stick around until the end, you will learn how to eliminate all the inner frictions and distractions and problems in your life that are sabotaging your willpower.
Recently I interviewed Julia, a lovely, talented OCAD student about the value of art school. At the end of the interview, I asked her to tell me about the biggest creative challenge she was dealing with right now.
I think what has come up in my research and in my struggle with procrastination and creativity is self-control. It’s a skill like any other but how do you go about developing it and staying on track? No amount of time-management and organization is going to stick if you can’t control yourself and keep going.
Lacking self-discipline is common for people in any field of creative work. There’s plenty of creative minds with terrific ideas, but no self-will to carry them out.
If we get in the habit of relying on ourselves for entertainment, we can deal with solitude and boredom and drudgework much easier.
Do you often experience boredom and restlessness, like Lil’ Chimp? Do you search for endless ways to fill up your free hours, doing things like consuming alcohol or drugs, mindlessly surfing YouTube and watching the newest show on T.V?
If you’re a writer/ artist/ photographer/ singer, do you hate putting in the long, dull hours necessary to do your work?
You’re not alone. We all try escaping boredom and we all hate doing drudgework.
Ours is a society that caters to the lazy and the bored. There are endless activities to do, books to passively read, video games to play, and drugs to ingest. Society has developed to the point where, when left to our own devices, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
(Thousands of years ago our ancestors never had the luxury of being bored—every day they struggled to find food and to survive.)
I can’t speak for you, but if you were born in North America, your basic needs—securing food, water, shelter, relationships and even luxuries—are probably already fulfilled. Most of us, then, are left with spare time to somehow to pass by. Corporations constantly build newer, weirder services and products that cater to the restless public—and we gladly consume them.
Art is a bird, not a kite. In other words, art is meant to be let go, not held on to.
I think the hardest (and most important) task of being creative is sending your work into the world to be judged. It’s relatively easy to dream up ideas, outline them, and even work on them. That’s the part of a project that creative artists enjoy – the process of engaging with your tools (books, brushes, instruments, cameras) and seeing where it all leads you. The hard part is finishing and sending off your book/ painting/ album for people to either praise, criticize, or ignore.
So what usually happens when artists (or writers, etc.) near their deadline? The uncertainty about how their work will be received might make them:
-Panic and make changes and revisions that don’t improve the piece.
-Overthink things, which can lead to over-explaining something or over-emphasizing a certain aspect that doesn’t need to be.
-Suddenly doubt the core premise of the work and start cutting and erasing until the entire piece is gutted and ruined.
For me, ‘finishing something and then shipping it’ seemed like an easy concept to grasp, but was very difficult to execute. I had been working on my book Lessons for Creative People on and off for about a year. And the creative part – going to the library, researching for hours, and coming home to write – was actually enjoyable.
Image by Krikit (Creative Commons)
When you’re about to start a creative project, there’s going to be things holding you back. Self-doubt kicks in. You rationalize why you shouldn’t work on this project today—unfortunately these reasons are actually seductive and convincing. You can’t, for the life of you, drag your sorry self to practice.
You’re not alone. I’m right there with you—yapping excuses. I’ve got a stack full of them. But there’s a way we can beat this inner friction: momentum.
For artists, momentum works like this: It’s Monday—you have killer self-doubt about a project or task, but you plough through it anyway. You show up and perform. The work may turn out horribly, no matter. Doing the work is what matters.
You can build off something, but you can’t build off nothing. You can improve upon Monday’s work, but you can’t improve a blank script or an empty canvas.