This seems so incredibly elemental that it’s almost not worth writing about, yet surprisingly, so many people make some really fundamental mistakes, missing crucial steps.
Without any further ado, here’s how you get better at doing whatever it is you do:
- Make a list of the things you want to be able to do, but can’t do.
- Arrange that list into priority order, with the things that matter most at the top.
- Work on each item on your list, until you can do it, before moving onto the next.
Sounds very simple, right? How else could you do it? This seems so ridiculously obvious, that it’s embarrassing to even write it down like this. Amazingly, countless artists fail to follow this simple method, every day and as a consequence, remain stuck in the frustration of never getting better at what they do.
What do people get wrong?
Firstly, people fail to make a list of the aspects of their technique, or the things they want to be able to do, that they want to improve on. That’s right. They have no inventory of the things they want to improve. That’s an incredibly simple oversight, but a common one. I bet if you walked up to any artist, who wanted to improve their methods of working, or who wanted to get better results, they couldn’t really tell you what they wanted to improve, or how they were going to go about it. Just writing down a list of the things you want to get better at is incredibly effective at focusing you on those things. Not having a list at all is a similar stance to not wanting to improve anything about what you do. You might have a vague wish to improve, but you’ve done nothing about it. There are no specifics. You haven’t even identified what you want to improve.
In painting, the list could include items like “draw more realistic hands and feet” or “mix less muddy colours”. You might focus on “getting the proportions right” or “achieving a better compositional balance”. In guitar playing, you might want to work on “incorporating arpeggios in your solos”, or “perfecting your vibrato technique”. Whatever it is that you want to get better at, it helps to have a list of what they are. That’s hardly a revelation and certainly not rocket science, but so many artists are unable to produce that list, on demand.
The next thing people seem to get wrong is that they don’t have a programme of improvement that prioritises the things they want to get better at first. Instead, they attack everything, all at once and fail at it. Discouragement soon follows. Nobody gets better at every single thing they cannot do, in a single day. That’s ridiculous. Even still, you hear people say “I’m no good at painting. I’m going to give up”, when their real problem is that, while ignoring all the things they can already do, when painting, they try to get better at every single thing they cannot do, all at once and become overwhelmed and daunted by the task. Giving up seems easier, if you think that the mountain is too steep to climb. What mountain climbers know is that you climb a mountain section by section, not all in one go.
The other reason it’s important to prioritise is that some of the things you improve will have a major and immediate impact on the overall quality of your work. Other things that you want to improve will be in the minutiae. While they might seem important to improve upon, to you, to a casual viewer, they won’t be very significant aspects of your work. They may even prefer your unimproved results. Focusing on getting better at the big and visible things you want to improve pays dividends faster.
Finally, you have to improve one thing at a time and get that done, to your complete satisfaction, before attempting to improve the next thing. That means excluding your feelings of inadequacy about all the other areas for improvement on your list which you aren’t currently working on. Forget about them. If you can’t blend edges on the canvas, don’t worry about that until you can render a face more realistically, for example. The other areas for improvement are for another day and you should put them out of your mind entirely, while you focus on improving just one aspect of your artistic technique.
It’s tempting to try to do it all, or else to fret about every item you’ve already identified on your list, but what is most effective is to focus on one area for improvement, research how you might solve your deficiency in depth (there are infinite video lessons on YouTube, for example), prepare for your changes, then attempt to improve in that one area. If you don’t get a good result, the first time, try again. Keep trying until you have actually improved on that one area. When you have it under your belt, only then should you move onto the next area for improvement on your list.
The thing that is a very common mistake is that, having identified itemised aspects of your artistic technique that you want to improve on, actually trying to improve each thing will take you out of your comfort zone and consequently, you will run and hide, rather than face it. Your comfort zone is all the things you can already do. If you were content with that, there would be no list of areas for improvement. In fact, the only way to grow, as an artist, is to always have that list, no matter how good you get at what you do. Staying inside you comfort zone eventually becomes safe and predictable and so your work becomes trite and boring.
Wanting to be better at what you do guarantees that you will have to spend practically all of your time outside your comfort zone, as you tackle each thing you cannot yet do, in turn. The effort you expend in trying to improve a single aspect of your artistic endeavour will mean that you constantly feel like you’re not really an artist, that you cannot do anything and that success is a long way away. It’s not the case. Although the discomfort will cause you to question whether or not you’re a fraud, as an artist, the mere fact that you are building on things you can already do and methodically adding new things to that toolbox of accomplishments, every time you step up to create, means you are the truest kind of artist. Being in charge of developing your technique and actually diligently and purposefully applying yourself to the task of improvement means you are rapidly going to distinguish yourself from artists who don’t.
So, there it is. Simple, but difficult. Getting better at what you do requires that you figure out what you can’t do, tackle the thing you can’t do that will make the most difference first and focus on just a single area of improvement at a time, ignoring all the other things you can’t yet do, but wish you could. You’ll feel rotten and hopeless, the whole time, but your art will improve in spectacular leaps and bounds. Given time, you’ll make it all the way through your list of inadequacies and you’ll find yourself inventing new challenges for yourself, or focusing on very fine details of your technique. It will provide a constant programme of self-improvement, no matter how much you accomplish.
Meanwhile, the amateurs will still be floundering around, wondering why they aren’t any better, after all these years and spending all their time doing things they can already do. Which camp do you want to be in? It’s a choice.