We all want to become better at something. Each day, many of us slog through the minutiae of trying to perfect one aspect of our being. If you’re an athlete, you drill; chefs test combinations of flavors and presentation; musicians practice scales and ear-training. Writers write.
In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King gives the most important advice you can give to a writer, and it is applicable to anything:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
There really is no way around it. If you want to get better in life, not only do you have to spectate and study (the reading part for writers), but you have to put in the physical time and effort aimed at improvement (the writing part). We generally don’t have too much trouble in the reading. If it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s easy to get lost in the study of your art. You can study as passively or actively as you like, depending on how you feel that day. But when it comes to action, that’s where things get hard. If you haven’t built up a consistent practice habit, then every day will feel like starting from scratch, forcing yourself to just get through the exercise and wondering why you’re even doing this.
In the second chapter of “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he finds that one of the key ingredients to success is 10,000 hours of practice. In order to master something, he asserts, one must put in approximately 10,000 hours of hard work towards his or her goal. That’s almost 10 years of effort at 20 hours a week. If you work a full-time, 40-hour per week job now, consider your desire to master your talent as a second, part-time job that you must go to every day for the next ten years.
As a couple of examples in his book, neither Mozart nor chess prodigy Bobby Fischer were immune to the dedication of hours. But they seem more extraordinary because of their young age. When you consider, though, that Mozart had been composing for more than ten years before he wrote his first masterpiece, and that Bobby Fischer had studied chess intimately for only nine years (gifted, indeed!), it is evident that even the most prodigious of us is not immune to the fact that the hours put in to something is more important than innate talent.
But just getting through the exercise isn’t enough for solid improvement. If you’ve ever heard and believed the phrase “practice makes perfect,” then you’ve been mislead. Practice makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.
Cal Newport, in his blog Study Hacks, builds on Gladwell’s study of 10,000 hours of work and asserts that the right type of work may be even more important. I won’t go into great detail what he has written on his blog, but just give a high level synopsis of what he calls “deliberate practice,” a term coined from psychology professor Anders Ericsson. In essence, deliberate practice requires tremendous amounts of hard focus aimed at improving performance. It must be repeated over and over for hours on end and be mentally draining. Also, there has to be some sort of feedback loop that allows you to see progress and adjust your training appropriately. The article is worth the read.
How to get 10,000 hours of Deliberate Practice
Mike Winkleman, a graphic designer and short film maker known as Beeple, discusses in an article in The Atlantic and on his website a series of mini-projects he calls “everydays.” He states that he does these projects in order to build on an area of his talent every day. By taking an area of focus and working at it day in and day out, you can only improve, as long as you’re giving it the due diligence it deserves. By publishing these works each day, he is forced (at the risk of publicly failing) to work diligently to finish a product for himself and his fans. It may be rough and unpolished, but after putting almost 2,500 days into his projects, he has an amazing body of work to show. Not the everydays, but the big ones, the fully developed drawings and videos. Check out Transparent Machines on his website. This is what deliberate practice every day can do.
I am a huge fan of that idea, and I want to take a similar approach. That’s what my Weeklies category is for. These are mini-projects I work on throughout the week that help me develop a writing skill that I’m either lacking or just something I want to be better at. I chose to publish weekly instead of daily for a couple of reasons. Mainly, I just didn’t feel like I could develop an idea in a single day. Some of the ideas I would work on may be part of a story I’ll tell later and I’m not comfortable with putting out just yet. Also, writing isn’t my full-time job. I spend close to 60 hours some weeks as a data analyst, and any time I have for writing is going to go first into my next novel. Other time goes into marketing my current novel (the joys of being self-published!). I’m already trying to put in the hours of writing as prescribed by Mr. King and Mr. Gladwell, so I’m not quite ready to commit to “everyday” publishing. Weekly, I can do, and it gives me time to consider what I want to work on, improve, and release. That may change, but I’m not there yet.
There is a wealth of information out there on talent improvement. Let me know in the comments if there’s a technique you prefer.