Tag Archives: Outliers

Practice Makes Perfect

Or does it?

I’m re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Her advice both inspires and frightens me. She makes me feel like writing is as simple as breathing and as impossible as climbing Everest. One chapter in particular struck me this time. In The Goody-Two-Shoes Nature, she advises against being satisfied with a dutiful writing routine.

“Don’t just put in your time. That is not enough. Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for writing practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically pushing the pen across the page and intermittently looking at the clock to see if your time is up.”

Those sentences struck me as painfully true. I know I’m guilty of punching my writing time clock. I write mindlessly and sometimes I’ll hit on a great new idea, the perfect word, a brilliant sentence, but more often I stay stuck in my groove. If I want to get out of it, I have to push my limits and do something new, something terrifying.

This reminded me of a book I swiped from my husband’s business collection. I was fascinated by Geoff Colvin’s ideas in Talent is Overrated. He maintains that it takes ten years of practice to excel (similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in Outliers), but that the way most of us practice isn’t enough. He writes in great detail about the studies of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and his work on expert performance, particularly in the area of deliberate practice.

According to Colvin, deliberate practice requires that we:

  • Work with a teacher. We need objective evaluation of our abilities and our progress. A teacher can devise practice sessions focusing not on skills that we have already mastered or on tasks that are too far beyond our capabilities, but on work that is difficult, yet not impossible.
  • Repeat. We have to keep practicing things that are hard until they come naturally.
  • Challenge ourselves mentally. Practicing without thinking won’t help us improve. Adding intense mental focus makes our practice more difficult, but more effective. We won’t be able to spend as much time working since the effort required is more exhausting, but we’ll accomplish more in that shorter amount of time.
  • Accept that it will hurt. It’s fun to do things we’re good at doing and so very frustrating to stretch for skills just beyond our reach. Failure is a constant risk, but the rewards are worth the pain.

If I want to stretch my writing skills, I need to listen to Natalie Goldberg and Geoff Colvin. I need to follow the example of my friend who loved horses so much that she learned to ride. She found a teacher, started taking lessons every week and practicing in between. Now she has a horse of her own and she competes. Sometimes she’s frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of skill, but watching her ride is inspiring. I think she found the perfect teacher, one who pushes her beyond her comfort zone to keep reaching for the next level.

It’s time for me to find that teacher. I need someone who will give me objective feedback and will push me to reach beyond safe. I’m a cautious person, so taking deliberate risks with my writing won’t be easy, but I have to overcome my fear of failure. It’s time to stop aiming for perfect and go for truth.

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