There is a well-known trumpet player named Rick Braun. Although a few years younger, he was born in the same city and went to the same high school as my dad. And if my memory serves, they were in high school at the same time and at least knew of each other. My dad played the trumpet in high school, even performing in a band. Many year ago, my dad saw Braun somewhere—a concert I think—and had a chance to speak with him. The story goes that my dad said something complimentary about Braun’s ability and talent. (Yes, this is all hearsay.) Braun’s reply? “What a lot of people mistake for talent is simply a lot of hard work.”
At Time in the nineteen-fifties, the entry-level job for writers was a column called Miscellany. Filled with one-sentence oddities culled from newspapers and the wire services, Miscellany ran down its third of a page like a ladder, each wee story with its own title—traditionally, and almost invariably, a pun. Writers did not long endure there, and were not meant to, but just after I showed up a hiring freeze shut the door behind me, and I wrote Miscellany for a year and a half. That came to roughly a thousand one-sentence stories, a thousand puns.
~ John McPhee from, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/14/omission
John McPhee is a stellar writer. He’s written a lot and, okay, sure, I get that. There are greatest-of-all-time musicians I’ve heard of who still do scales daily 30 years on. And McPhee wrote a thousand puns(!), a thousand titles, and a thousand one-sentence stories cut-down from larger stories. (And go read McPhee’s article right now, about omission.) And now here’s Braun’s comment. Frankly, I’ve heard this sentiment countless times in countless variations: The path to mastery? Chop wood, carry water.
The thing I’m not certain of though, from my dad’s story, is whether the takeaway for him was, “Oh cool, Braun’s just a regular guy who worked really hard!” or “Fudge, I shoulda’ stuck with the trumpet!”
I value writing because it forces me to winnow my thinking. (And I hear you snarking: If this is the winnowed thinking…) I appreciate that writing begs me to review and rethink. I appreciate that writing slows me down and that hand writing is glacial in pace.
Likewise, they say, handwriting is going the way of the dodo. I don’t think that’s precisely true—it sounds like one of those lazy assumptions about technology, that it exists to flatten, to eliminate anything that brings a tactile, objective permanence. It may be, rather, that the objective has changed. Now we handwrite because we want to, not because we have to.
~ Neil Serven from, https://lithub.com/what-emojis-cant-express-how-handwriting-reveals-our-true-selves/
It feels odd to me that “handwriting” is mostly just a noun.
Maybe I’m lost in pedantry here, but I’m intrigued by the interplay and overlap of the following simple sentences and fragments, and their multiple meanings. I write. My writing. My handwriting. My hand writing.
What I learned from reading about writing…
~ “Dynomight” from, https://dynomight.net/2021/02/07/writing-as-a-craft/
This was a fun read and is mostly not the usual titles one sees suggested to read on writing. Among many things, I am a writer. I enjoy learning what appears—in others’ view—to be the right way to do things. The more I read, write, and read on writing, the more I’m convinced it’s just like any other mastery practice: The only rule is that there really are no real rules. Understand the best, accepted practices, (often labeled “rules” to get the newbies to start in the correct direction,) and then later move on to do whatever you please.
There comes a moment in doing your reading where new work begins to rhyme. When you start to see the connections. When you understand who influenced the person you’re engaging with right now.
~ Seth Godin from, https://seths.blog/2021/09/on-doing-the-reading/
I find it difficult to figure out when to shift from empty-cup, learn-everything mode into the mastery mode. Godin’s insight about “rhyming” strikes me as a great test. In the beginning of some new learning adventure, everything is new and everything is surprising. The idea of noticing when a lot of things start to rhyme… of noticing when you can tell who or what influenced this thing you’re currently studying… that is when you notice that you have shifted into the mastery level of practice. Mastery does not—not by a long shot!—mean you are done. It’s more like the point where the airplane pivots and leaps into the sky: Now I am ready to begin my own journey.
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
~ Harrington Emerson
This is strikingly accurate for all the domains I’ve tried so far. I believe it’s useful to begin by trying some method-work; To explore conversation as a mastery practice, it would be insurmountably boring to sit in my research library reading about conversation. But trying a few different experiments provides invaluable experience. Some things are reproducible, and some things aren’t. Why is that? Some things work as I expected, and some things don’t. Why is that? Some things aren’t connected the way I’d expected, (imagine if the light switches in your house worked lights in other rooms, instead of the one you expected.) Why is that?
Niels Bohr said something similar about Painful experience, and I agree. The experiences serve as guides on either side of the roadway. In the beginning, everything is unknown and the road is seemingly boundless. Some exploration however soon finds a guide limiting one side. Farther exploration moves along the road and perhaps finds the other side’s guide. Progress continues in a serpentine fashion along the road. As principles are learned, the road becomes clearer. Armed with the curiosity and inspiration born of experimentation, progress along the road accelerates as the guides become more clear.
In the end—or the end of the beginning?—things again seem simple. One might even say they seem principled.
But this moment cannot come without the days of frustration at the blackboard. “You can’t really blame the storytellers,” Rockmore writes, “It’s not so exciting to read ‘and then she studied some more.’ But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process.”
~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/07/16/on-the-myth-of-big-ideas/
And Niels Bohr said something similar about Painful experience. And I bet your experience agrees. I know mine does.
Nobody sees how much time I spend working on podcasting. Every facet is complicated. I’m regularly noticing new things, picking up interesting skills and ideas from nearby areas of expertise. Structural wisdom from the field of authors. Empathic skills from the field of therapists. New kinds of questions from the field of hosts. New vocal skills from the field of speakers. And teachers and mechanics and on and on.
The eureka moments get the attention but they’re very few and very far between.
A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.
~ Matt Mullenweg from, https://ma.tt/2020/04/five-levels-of-autonomy/
I’ve read and listened to a bunch of stuff from Mullenweg and he’s consistently someone with his head on straight and his priorities—particularly those related to the many people working for his company—in order. If you just went, “Matt who?” definitely read that little post, and then, perhaps, dip into his podcast, Distributed. (Maybe try the episode, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg on building a fully distributed company, to get a good taste.)
Also, yes, more autonomy for everyone.
Informed Simplicity is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded on ability to discern or create clarifying patterns with complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.
~ Matthew Frederick from, https://fs.blog/2016/06/three-levels-knowing/
As you’ve no doubt discovered, getting to the level of informed simpicity is difficult. It requires deep understanding of a field, and that requires significant time investment. In my opinion, a hallmarks of subject mastery is demonstrating a level of understanding that reaches informed simplicity.
If I think something is simple, either I’m a beginner or the subject isn’t complex enough to be a mastery practice. If I think something is complex, then I know I’m a beginner. And if when asked about the subject, I find myself looking up a little with my eyes, while making that lopsided, slight smile… suddenly lost in thought? Then I know things are getting easy.
7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”
~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2016/06/things-learned-architecture-school/
That articlette is about a book, 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The 7th point, in bold, is the penultimate of a best-of-the-best selection from the book. The inner-quoted part is Matthew Frederick, the book’s author.
This point about a holistic process—the idea that mastery isn’t some higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of throwing things together—is an idea I’ve held dearly for a long time. Every time I see it, like in this articlette, I want leap up, flipping my desk over and scream, “Hear! Hear! …and again, louder, for those in the back staring at their handheld devices.”
Every single time that I’ve decided to take a process, and repeat it in search of understanding, (for example, my 10,000 rep’s project,) the learning and personal growth has paid off beyond my wildest dreams. At this point, I’ve done nearly 200 recorded conversations—I’m not stretching the truth, it’s actually hard to figure out exactly how many I’ve done. I’ve started another show recently as part of the Podcaster Community (25+ episodes and counting) and I’ve set up all the moving parts for yet another show as part of Movers Mindset “shorts”. And I keep wondering…
What would happen if I did 500, 1000? …what about 10,000? Not because I want to be famous and whine, “but I did 1,000 episodes why doesn’t anyone love me?!” But because I can see, in myself, how much I’ve learned and grown after 200. What would happen if I did a lot more?
The improvements in Eliza’s speech alone do not confer the opportunities. But being able to speak like a duchess puts her in the company of people from whom she can learn the sentiments and sensibilities of the upper class. When she begins to speak like them, they treat her differently, giving her an opening to expand her capabilities.
~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2021/05/the-pygmalion-effect/
I’ve always been unhappy with the phrase, “fake it ’til you make it.” It’s always seemed that there was something missing. (Yes, sure, it’s meant to be short and simple, not long and accurate.) But this bit from Parrish hits it on the head.
By acting as if I already were the thing I want to be, I’m practicing being the thing. That’s obvious. What’s not obvious is that doing so creates a positive feedback loop as other people then treat me as if I really were the thing. I make a change, and then as if by magic, other people offer me new opportunities. I use the work magic because what I might change—for example, how I speak, as in Eliza’s case—should have no bearing on what opportunities I am offered. But it does.
Why? Other. People.
The bottom line is that if you’re intrigued by depth, give real depth a try, by which I mean giving yourself at least two or three hours with zero distractions. Let the hard task sink in and marinate. Push through the initial barrier of boredom and get to a point where your brain can do what it’s probably increasingly craving in our distracted world: to think deeply.
~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/12/12/deep-habits-the-danger-of-pseudo-depth/
My mind loves to wander off. It often wanders off to familiar ideas. Ever have a small burr on a finger nail? You fiddle with it slightly, scuffing it with another nail. Some thoughts feel like that in my mind. Not a problem exactly—not bad enough that I’m going to get up for the nail file. But, none the less, there is this idea yet again. My fascination with rock climbing is one such idea. Why, exactly, does climbing fascinate me? I’ve spend many a CPU cycle recursively interrogating this question.
Upon reading Newport’s post, I find it has pointed me in a direction I’d not previously seen: Is it the deep focus found within the pursuit of rock climbing which draws me to it?
This is the lesser told story about the quest for elite accomplishment. It’s common to hear about the exciting initial phase where you’re terrible but motivated and therefore see quick returns. But so many people, like C. K., soon hit a plateau. They’re no longer bad. But they’re also not improving; stuck in a circle that doesn’t take them anywhere.
~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/07/how-louis-c-k-became-funny-and-why-it-matters/
But I’m still left with the question: How do I distinguish, putting in the effort, from, bashing myself on the rocks? Because I’ve got the work-ethic, put-in-the-effort, do-the-hard-work, thing down pat. What I don’t seem to have—in my opinion—is success. I’m certainly not enjoying life generally. It’s just long stretches of hating myself in the form of insanely hard work, with brief windows of relaxation.