Learning New Stuff (and some humility too)

aka, Embracing the bottom rung

You have to be willing to be bad at something, before you can be good at something. You have to learn to survive frustration and maybe even some pain. The process works much faster if you will allow people to witness your trials and errors in real time so you can receive the necessary feedback for improvement.la-foot-jpg-pagespeed-ce-nqauhaehj9

The first time this concept hit home for me was in high school. I ended up being one of the better players on my soccer team and was invited to play an all-star team for the state of Virginia. There is no humble-bragging intended here because I was definitely one of the worst players on the best team in its class. I didn’t see much actual playing time but I learned a ton about soccer and teamwork and the value of continually “starting at the bottom.”

Years later I went to GIT in Hollywood. They tell the students on day one to leave their ego at the door…acknowledging that everyone in the room was likely one of the “best” musicians in whatever town they came from, but…”no matter what special thing you think you can do on guitar, there are likely six guys in the room who can do it better.” They weren’t wrong.

I had virtually no writing experience when I decided I wanted to write a novel. So I read 32 books on the craft and started typing. Ever since, I’ve alternated between reading a lot and writing a lot. Like anyone else, I am prone to letting my head swell a bit when I write something particularly good or receive an acceptance email for one of my stories. But then I simply read something by Richard Russo or Nick Hornby or Anne Tyler or Benjamin Percy or Ian Mcewan (or dozens of others) and I am appropriately humbled yet again. (Reading my own stuff can be rather humbling too!)

I have done this with musical instruments, memory tricks, and many facets of my day job. I start out knowing very little and simply accept the fact that the only way to get good at something is to swallow my pride, resign myself to doing whatever is required poorly for a while, then do it anyway.

The good news is: the more often you learn a new thing from scratch, the better you get at learning things from scratch. Believe it or not there is a lot of crossover between learning the banjo, how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards, how to craft better sentences, and my company’s clumsy ERP system. You have to be willing to suck at something for a while, to be okay with incremental improvement, maybe even take a step or two back before you can leap a few forward.

Personally, I believe this helps people live longer too (along with juicing regularly and not playing chicken with dump trucks).

Thrill Me: Essays On Fiction by Benjamin Percy

This is no nonsense writing advice and commentary from a tremendous literary talent. However, he loves comic books and horror and thrillers too. So there’s very little pretense and snobbery on display (at least so far, only about halfway in). Thrill Me should easily land (and remain) in my top ten books on writing. If you’re a writer, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. I doubt you’ll regret it.


Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)

Thrill Me on amazon. “An urgent and entertaining missive on craft, Thrill Me brims with Percy’s distinctive blend of anecdotes, advice, and close reading, all in the service of one dictum: Thrill the reader.”

Cal Newport Is Smarter Than Everybody

Not really, but he is smart and I liked that title, so I’m keeping it.

I own at least four Cal Newport books (I think he’s published five). I own hardcovers of both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You  (also both of them on Kindle and audio book). I even get his newsletter…and I don’t sign up for newsletters. But again, because he’s smarter than everyone else, he only sends newsletters when he feels like he has something to say, NOT at regular intervals to “build his brand,” and never to try and sell me anything. See? Smart.

I won’t try to summarize his teachings here, but rather highlight a few of the ones I like best.so-good-they-cant-ignore

  • Every second you spend on social media is exponential time wasted that could be used to build rare and valuable skills.
  • Rare and valuable skills are what knowledge workers use to leverage better vocational circumstances (aka, money, benefits, promotions, new jobs, etc.)
  • Learning hard things begins with mastering the underlying concepts. It ends with absorbing the material to the point you could teach it to others.
  • Mastery precedes passion. If everyone followed their passion the world would be filled with guitarists, actors, and volleyball players. But if you take the time to get really good at something, passion will follow. It always does. Think about it…you have an affinity for all the things you’re already good at.

That is just scratching the surface. Buy his books, seek him out online (it’s hard; he’s not everywhere hawking his stuff, but hard is good, right?), and learn something. He really is that smart.

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