I came across a recent post on James Gurney’s art blog, Gurney Journey in which a reader had asked “How do you force yourself to improve?“, and it prompted me to think about some of what I’ve learned on the subject of studying, practicing and improving, and a book that was instructive in informing my own practice.
I’ve found it extremely helpful to understand that learning a skill like drawing or painting does not progress in the way we often expect.
We tend to think dedicated practice and study will result in a simple upward curve of progress, even if it’s a shallow curve. However the development of a skill like drawing or painting (or a sport, martial art, musical instrument or any other skill that requires long term study and practice) proceeds more like a series of plateaus.
You can work and study and practice for a long time and think you are making no progress, until at some point you notice that you have done a drawing or painting that is better than you could have done before.
Frustratingly, it may be followed by a series of others that indicate an apparent drop back to your previous level, but eventually you find yourself working at that higher level consistently. You have arrived at another plateau — on which you will be until your constant study and practice pays off with another bump up.
Understanding this, adjusting your expectations and learning not to block your own progress, can be instrumental in your pursuit of mastery in any skill.
Mastery is the title of a book by George Leonard that mentions art not at all (as best I recall) but is of spot-on relevance because it is all about the process of mastering a skill.
I came across it in the early 90’s because I had read some of Leonard’s writing for Esquire. I found it interesting in that he based some of Mastery on his own experience in learning and teaching Aikido, a Japanese “soft-style” martial art that is practiced as much for self development as for self defense.
In my own life, I have three areas in which I’ve devoted time, energy and effort to learning a skill — out of enthusiasm rather than necessity — drawing and painting (considered as one skill set), playing guitar, and Ta’i Chi Chuan, a Chinese “soft-style” martial art, practiced as much for self development as for self defense.
I’ve found striking similarities in the relationship of study, practice and progress in the process of learning all three skill sets.
Leonard’s Mastery is specifically about this relationship, and I found it to be a lightbulb over the head kind of read, one that has stuck with me and helped form my approach to learning.
Leonard explains the plateau phenomenon much better than I can here. He describes several kinds of individuals who get in their own way in their attempts at mastery and lays out a simple and clear approach to clearing your own path of the most common self-imposed obstructions.
The book has a subtitle of “The keys to success and long term fulfillment”, that I suspect the author may not have been happy with; but book publicists who attempt to promote books to the widest audience possible often do a disservice to potential readers who might find the titles most of interest.
You’ll find Mastery listed under “self-help” books, and though that may not be completely inaccurate, it certainly misses the point. Every book in that category has to promise to “change you life”. While I doubt Mastery will do that, it might change the way you approach learning a skill.
Mastery is a short, succinct read, and I found it worthy of a place on the bookshelf next to my art instruction books.