David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World came out less than 2 years ago, but it already feels like a classic to me, both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my life and a kick in the pants to not get complacent, to stretch out, and go down weird paths. It’s also, as Ryan Holiday suggested to me, a great parenting book in disguise.
One way you know if a book is any good is if you are still thinking about it a year after you read it. (Or five years, or a decade, etc. The longer you think about a book the better you know it is.) Another way to know if a book is good is if it seems like every week you read an article that could be a supplementary chapter.
One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They’d almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
It’s been my experience that if you’re a creative person, and you’re good at one thing, you’re probably good at another thing. If you’re good at drawing, you might be good at writing, too. If you’re good at writing, you might be good at playing music, too. If you’re good at playing music, you might be good at pottery. If you’re good at playing guitar, you might be a good dancer!
In order to create, there’s some little thing you have to let happen inside yourself, of just letting yourself be free. If you can turn that little switch on inside yourself in one medium, you can probably do it in another medium.
This is not exactly a popular way of thinking, but I subscribe to it: there is a “a way of being in the world” or a “way of operating” that you pick up while working in one medium that you can translate to another.
“Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines,” Epstein writes.
By the way, when Kochalka talks about that freedom switch that allows you to get over your fear of not being good enough? There’s a passage in Range for that! Researchers stuck jazz musicians inside an MRI scanner while they were improvising, and the researchers said it was almost as if the jazz musicians’ brains were able to turn off some kind of circuit that allows you to criticize yourself.
Here’s another example: this week I came across an article with the title, “The musical score is the worst thing in the history of music.” It quoted producer Mark Fell:
In my opinion, I think the musical score is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of music. I think it’s done more damage to music than any other invention. As a technology, the musical score fundamentally skewed the whole of musical practice in the wrong direction, I think.
This grabbed my interest, because I have an 8-year-old who is a natural musician, but refuses to be taught. I gently nudge him towards taking piano lessons and learning to read music, but he refuses.
Guess what? There’s a section in Range for that!
“It’s strange,” Cecchini told me at the end of one of our hours-long discussions, “that some of the greatest musicians were self-taught or never learned to read music. I’m not saying one way is the best, but now I get a lot of students from schools that are teaching jazz, and they all sound the same. They don’t seem to find their own voice. I think when you’re self-taught you experiment more, trying to find the same sound in different places, you learn how to solve problems.”
I could go on, but instead, here’s a list of (somewhat) random highlights from the book:
- “The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”
- “Learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run.”
- “Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the formal rules later.”
- “In offering advice to parents, psychologist Adam Grant noted that creativity may be difficult to nurture, but it is easy to thwart.”
- “[I] realized that I was not the type of person who wanted to spend my entire life learning one or two things new to the world, but rather the type who wanted constantly to learn things new to me and share them.”
- “In [Dan] Gilbert’s terms, we are works in progress claiming to be finished…. The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been.”
- “One sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind.”
- “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”
For a while, I was threatening to write a “Range for Artists” post, because for every chapter I could think of an example of an artist I love that exemplified the subject.
I don’t have time for that right now, so this post will have to do.
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After posting my 30-day Practice and Suck Less Challenge, I came across violinist Hilary Hahn’s 100 Days of Practice project: She posts a video of her practicing for 100 days on her Instagram with the hashtag #100daysofpractice and invites others to join her. (Similar to the 100-Day Project, which is coming up Jan. 31.)
View this post on Instagram
So, if you’re feeling ambitious and want to do a 100-day challenge, I made a new free, printable poster for you:
This challenge is not just for musicians, by the way: I first discovered it on Teju Cole’s Instagram stories. He wrote:
Hilary Hahn’s back-to-basics attitude to practice resonates with what I’ve tried to do with my writing in the past year.
I’ve gone back to fundamentals. I ask myself about openings, adverbs, commas, vocabulary, line lengths, sentence fragments, rhythm, voice.
I take one element at a time and examine it until I know better what I’m doing with it. Like analyzing a golf stroke or baseline jumper.
A Yellow Curtain Concert to mark #Beethoven’s 250th birthday. The Adagio cantabile from his “Pathétique” Sonata. Thank you Ludwig for all the hours spent with you. Totally worth it and opened me up as a person. We need a lot of strength at the moment and you help us with that. pic.twitter.com/rV9DXDpSHX
— Angela Hewitt (@HewittJSB) December 16, 2020
While she waited, she had to endure cancelled concerts because of the UK coronavirus lockdown, her principal residence being in London. Hewitt said she managed to stay sane by posting daily Twitter videos of herself playing easy pieces on her practice piano in her flat, and said the phone videos – some of which were viewed more than 140,000 times – provided a new way of connecting to a mass audience.
My resolution is to practice more ?
(“Auld Lang Syne” w/ Schumann intro) pic.twitter.com/N21NZys8uT
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 1, 2021
Always, always — remain a student!
“Lower your standards for what counts as progress,” writes Adam Grant, “and you will be less paralyzed by perfectionism.”
To celebrate the New Year, I made a new 30-day challenge, free for y’all to download and print:
Someone once asked me to distill all of my books into one piece of advice, and, off the top of my head, I said: “Try sitting down in the same place at the same time for the same amount of time every day and see what happens.” (This challenge is modified from The Steal Like An Artist Journal.)
Something small, every day, adds up to something big over time.
Me? I’m gonna practice the piano:
My resolution is to practice more ?
(“Auld Lang Syne” w/ Schumann intro) pic.twitter.com/N21NZys8uT
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 1, 2021
Happy New Year! Please feel free to share this challenge with anyone you think could use it.
If you liked this challenge, you’ll love my books.
One of my favorite parables about creative work comes from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear:
[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Like any great parable, it’s the specificity of image that makes it work for me: You can picture the dusty pottery studio, the scales, weighing all the crummy pots and failed experiments.
So it was puzzling to me a few months ago when I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits and he retold the parable, but using a photography class:
ON THE FIRST day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.
Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on.
Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.
At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.
“What in the hell?” I thought. Why would you move from something like pottery, which is more concrete, to photography, which is more abstract? (What makes a photo good is more subjective than what makes a pot good — you can still hang a blurry photo in a gallery, but you can’t drink out of a cracked mug.)
Then I noticed an asterisk at the end of Clear’s telling and checked the endnotes. Turns out he had emailed with Ted Orland in 2016, and learned the true origin of the parable:
“Yes, the ‘ceramics story’ in ‘Art & Fear’ is indeed true, allowing for some literary license in the retelling. Its real-world origin was as a gambit employed by photographer Jerry Uelsmann to motivate his Beginning Photography students at the University of Florida. As retold in ‘Art & Fear’ it faithfully captures the scene as Jerry told it to me—except I replaced photography with ceramics as the medium being explored. Admittedly, it would’ve been easier to retain photography as the art medium being discussed, but David Bayles (co-author) & I are both photographers ourselves, and at the time we were consciously trying to broaden the range of media being referenced in the text. The intriguing thing to me is that it hardly matters what art form was invoked—the moral of the story appears to hold equally true straight across the whole art spectrum (and even outside the arts, for that matter).”
(Ted Orland, by the way, was an assistant to Ansel Adams.)
Regardless of the form of the parable, the moral has certainly been true with my own work, especially writing and blogging. The frequency of my work — showing up at regular intervals, without worrying about results — has actually lead to better results.
Quantity leads to quality.
“You know, Terry, I think that belief is overrated.” she said.
Talking about religions as if they were about belief takes an image that’s basically forged in Christian tradition and applies it to Judaism, applies it to Buddhism or Hinduism. And in other traditions, belief is not so much the center as practice — saying the prayers, saying the Shama or going to worship, participating with others in certain acts, prayer.
She then spoke about her own spiritual practices:
I go to an Episcopal church often. I love the music. The person who’s the priest there is a man of spiritual depth, which I deeply appreciate. I go to yoga almost every day. That’s a physical and also contemplative practice. Meditate sometimes. I walk in the woods, see my friends… I’m enormously susceptible to what you spoke of before — the music, the rituals, the traditions, the prayers that I find there and also, too, those that we create. I wrote about also creating rituals, and many people do that. Many artists do that. And what many artists do is, feels to me, very closely akin to what I’m talking about.
Related reading: “We are verbs, not nouns”
Happy Friday here’s me trying to learn Aphex Twin pic.twitter.com/MTeAJKKOmg
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 10, 2020
I’ll let you know how it goes. (So far, I’m not sure the copying part is adding that much to the practicing part.)
My “practice/suck less” diagram drawn on @devthomas’s chalkboard-painted podium in his 7th grade classroom. I was delighted to hear from several teachers who said they were now discussing it with their students. “This is now my teaching philsophy statement,” tweeted @toddpetersen, “in full.”
I’ve been thinking about how practice is its own skill — that once you learn to practice, you can transfer that skill to almost anything else.
A few years ago, I tweeted, “Lots of people decide to train for a marathon and just go out and do it. Why not chose to have better handwriting? Or play the piano?” And @aribraverman tweeted back, “Actually, training for a marathon, going out every day… has helped me be better/braver at being new at things…. Started to learn French, learned to ride a motorcycle. Running helped me not stress/expect to be perfect right away.”
There are other lessons that practice teaches. Here is Liz Danzico on learning to play music:
Learning to play music is an long exercise learning to to be kind to yourself. As your fingers stumble to keep up with your eyes and ears, your brain will say unkind things to the rest of you. And when this tangle of body and mind finally makes sense of a measure or a melody, there is peace. Or, more accurately, harmony. And like the parents who so energetically both fill a house with music and seek its quietude, both are needed to make things work. As with music, it takes a lifetime of practice to be kind to yourself. Make space for that practice, and the harmony will emerge.
Here is my not-so-classroom-friendly image of practice. (The piece is Schumann’s “Träumerei.”)
“It isn’t so much that geniuses make it look easy; it’s that they make it look it fast.”
—Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
This week I re-read a 2010 piece by David Wong, author of John Dies at the End, called “How The Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World.” Wong laments how movies with training montages give us a skewed vision of how hard it actually is to get good at things:
Every adult I know — or at least the ones who are depressed — continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.
We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.
Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.
My 5-year-old son started piano lessons and I think it’s the first time he’s had to actually practice anything and he hates practicing already, and I’m not sure what the hell to tell him. If I say, “Well, don’t you want to be as good as Kraftwerk?” he’ll look at me like I’m a complete moron and motion to his Garageband tracks, like, “I am as good as Kraftwerk.”
Kids his age love to go around thinking that they’re the best in the world at things, and really, who wants to tell them otherwise? You don’t want to discourage them from doing things they love. But the switch towards taking on a practice and discipline is admitting to yourself that you suck and you want to get better.
I was chatting with my friend Adam and he mentioned he was taking drum lessons again after 20 years. He said he’d forgotten the joy of the practice –> suck a little less –> practice –> suck a little less loop.
Years ago I read an interview with actor Jason Segel and he talked about his willingness to be bad for as long as it takes:
I’m willing to be bad for as long as it takes, until I’m good….I don’t have a sense of shame. I just don’t. If I’ve hurt someone’s feelings, if I’m mean to somebody, I’ll lament over that for days. I’m that dude. I’ll lose sleep over mundane stuff. But I don’t really have the thing of, “Oh, I’ve embarrassed myself.” I just don’t understand why I would stop trying to play piano even though I’m not good at it. I want to be good at it. So why wouldn’t I keep playing?
How do you cultivate that willingness to be bad?
Related reading: “Practice, suck less”