When I was still young enough to think girls were gross I started doing art classes. My mother tells me I didn’t really enjoy the classes when I first started. We started of learning to draw vases and plants for the first few months. I have never been the most patient person, so I always wanted to jump ahead to the fun stuff.
Those early classes gave me hours of drawing practice before I was old enough to think of it as practice. Later, when I started doing art in high school, I was quite far ahead of the other kids in my class. I kept hearing things like “Wow you are talented” and internalised this belief. I was “good at art”. To me being artistic was something you either had or did not have. It was inborn; it came pre-installed.
Fast forward a few years to my final year of art classes in high school. I handed in an assignment I had recently finished.
Come on Stephen you can do better than this.
Those words devastated me. It felt like he was telling me that this “talent” I had been born with wasn’t good enough. It never occurred to me that art is a skill just like anything else.
Contrast this attitude with my experience learning to play sports. I was a skinny awkward kid when i was younger. I never considered myself an athlete. Towards the end of high school I started getting involved with some extreme sports. Initially inline skating and later other extreme sports like wake-boarding and kite surfing.
Coming into these sports, I had no expectation of having any “talent” for them. All I knew is that if I practised I would be better tomorrow than I am today. I became hooked on this feeling of setting a goal and trying over and over again. Getting closer until one day it clicks. Step by step, I went from having no ability to taking part in national championships.
The difference in my attitude to sports and art illustrates the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People in a fixed mindset believe you either are or aren’t good at something, based on your inherent nature, because it’s just who you are. People in a growth mindset believe anyone can be good at anything, because your abilities are entirely due to your actions. I held both these beliefs at the same time.
Although I knew about the fixed mindset versus growth mindset theory I still had this dual perspective in my mind. I felt I could control my progress in sports but had been assigned a level when it came to art. This changed over the course of a year or so and two books played a big part in changing my world view.
First I read “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. One of the points he makes is that for most fields there are a minimum set of attributes that you need to compete. In basketball, height only gives you an advantage up to 6 feet 3 inches. Once you surpass this threshold things like how much you practised start to matter more. The same goes in the academic field: once your IQ is above 120 you’re no more or less likely to win a Nobel Prize than somebody with an IQ of 150. For the first time I started questioning the idea that my talent for art was innate. If this concept applies to fields as diverse as basketball and winning a Nobel Prize then why would art be an exception?
Shortly after this I read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. This book gave me a glimpse into how the Talent Code process worked as well as providing a roadmap explaining how to achieve it. Coyle explains how learning any new skill is achieved by forming new connections in your brain. You then strengthen these connections by layering myelin over the neural pathways involved. In the same way you get stronger muscles by lifting heavy things over and over. You gain ability by practising difficult skills over and over.
How do you go about learning a new skill? According to Coyle there are some key ingredients:
You need to dedicate time to deep practice. You have to struggle. Struggling is neurologically required to get your skill circuit to fire optimally. To improve at a skill you need to practise just past your limits. You must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes. Then you have to do it again.
Chunking is the process of breaking skills apart in their component pieces. First, look at the task as a whole — as one big chunk, the mega circuit. Second, divide it into its smallest possible chunks and practise those individually. Third, play with time by slowing the action down, then speeding it up to learn its inner architecture. Then put it all back together again.
Deciding to make a long-term commitment to a skill has a massive impact on your ability to learn it. Professor Gary McPherson did a study on children learning to play an instrument. The children were asked how long they thought they would play their new instrument. With the same amount of practice, the children who were planning on playing for a long time outperformed the short term group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half.
Finding a great teacher who can give you small, targeted, highly specific adjustments to your technique will greatly increase your rate of learning.
I’ve recently started drawing again. I still have a long way to go but this time where I end up is in my control.
Stephen Young has been working as a programmer, architect and manager for the last 13 years. He spent most of his career building web applications both in the startup world and in the enterprise. For the last few years he has spent a lot of time training the developers in the organisations where he works. If the underlying principles behind the skills needed to build world class web applications interests you then read more from him at AESTHETIC IO.