If you’re like me, this is a lesson you might have learned many times, yet it is so easy to forget. It always works, though. If you want to be a guitar player, play guitar a lot. If you want to be a painter, paint a lot of pictures. If you want to be a songwriter, write many songs. If you want to be a music producer, produce a lot of music. If you want to be able to write software, write a lot of software. You get the gist. The more of anything you do, the better you seem to do it.
This is not to say that courses, coaching and learning from books or videos has no place in the process of perfecting your art. Of course it does. What we sometimes do, though, is substitute the learning for the doing. It becomes a displacement activity and an avoidance tactic to stave off the inevitable need to roll up your sleeves and have a go. Why do we do this?
We know that doing what we aspire to do, however badly initially, is the road to mastery. We know it intuitively. There is ample proof available. We also know that if we apply a little intelligence, wit, fun, joy, play, humour and authentic personality to the process, it becomes original. Further, we know that learning about what we’re doing from other sources, while we are also learning by doing, pays even higher dividends. All we need to do is make the time, regularly, frequently, to keep our hand in.
I think the reason we “forget” the valuable ‘learning by doing’ lesson is one of taste. If we have taste in that art which we want to succeed in, our initial efforts can fail to impress us. The trick is to make the first efforts unimportant. We need to give ourselves permission, space and comfort to fail for a while. It might get boring, but eventually you turn the corner. You need to allow your first songs to be terrible, your first paintings to be grotesque, your first writings to meander, your first music to sound amateurish and your first software to be buggy and messy. You need to give yourself the time it takes to get good.
Here’s what you need to tell yourself. You can always throw the first efforts away, hide them from the world and forget they ever happened. Not everything you make or do has to meet the highest standards attainable. You can sketch. You can doodle. You can draft. You can prototype. You can experiment. You can outline. Nothing is permanent. You can always change it later.
Of course, in saying you can always change it, don’t fall into the trap of continually changing the stuff you just did and never finishing it. Sometimes, you have to let it go. Get it down, get it finished. Forget it. If you continually change and reshape what you’ve done, you’ll never move on to learning the next thing. Let the thing you make be imperfect. Let it stand, as my friend Rachael says, as a stepping stone to the better work. Let it be a monument to your continual progress toward mastery.
Revisiting your earlier ideas, or sifting through your old sketches and outlines can inform your later works, once you have a better grasp of your technique. Nothing prohibits you from doing the same thing over again, but better, now that you can make it better. The archive of creative sparks you accumulate, through the process of continually doing, can get you over those creative blocks and times when you can’t think of an idea, later on. Making sketches and doodles is actually like putting creative money in the bank and saving inspiration for a rainy day.
The great thing about learning by doing, especially if it is something you really love, is that every moment brings you pleasure and happiness, even if sometimes frustrating. The process is worth engaging in just because it’s better than Prozac.
Of course, the better you get at what you love, the more likely it is that you can make your living doing it. When you reach that point, where you are paid to have fun doing what you love to do, you’ve reached Nirvana. It might be a long road, but the destination is worth the miles.