The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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Why I’ll Never Sell Out

Because nobody’s buying my shit. Har har.

Seriously though, the term “Selling Out” has been abused by hipsters and douchebags for so long, using it now flags you as one, like the words “sky wizard” or “crotch spawn” or “sheeple.” Yet while trying to figure out that point where something you like becomes a souless mockery of itself, I found no other term as useful, so let’s unpack its baggage, shall we?

The term Sell Out has been characterized to mean the following:

  • “When everybody else jumped on the bandwagon and now I can’t get a good seat anymore. Boohoohoo.”
  • “When my favorite band stopped making music I like in favor of literally anything else. Damn them for trying to stretch their creative horizons. I wanted the same old graunchy shit again and again!”
  • “When my favorite thing appeared in an advertisement. How dare they use their IP to shill products of any kind. All money is poison!”

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Sense is More Important Than Accuracy

Accuracy is overrated when it comes to portraying something in a way that makes sense to most people. Outside a research paper or an architectural drawing, you’re more often looking for verisimilitude. Verisimilitude captures the essence, or appearance, of a thing. Today that means distilling it down to pertinent details rather than describing every boat in the harbor and their moorings (during the frickin climax, Dickens, wth). I’ve run across the distillation principle again and again in different contexts, so I have plenty of examples:

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On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same

Collaborating with others is a learned skill. One most people don’t learn properly in school because most teachers just throw a bunch of students together and hope for the best. The students almost always divide the work the same way: so everyone gets a smaller piece of the same job. This is not how projects work in real life because shit actually needs to get done, and it’s the worst way to go about it.

For example, in university I was once saddled with a group who thought sharing the workload meant everyone had to write a report and recite it in front of the class – independently. It could hardly be called a “group” at all. I tried to work for better cohesion: playing MC, tying people’s ideas together, and trying to engage the audience. I even tried to teach the rest of the group to memorize their shit so they wouldn’t stand there mumbling with their noses in their notes, but guess what they did come presentation time. Each was in their own little world, boring the shit out of everyone else.

One girl didn’t present at all, which I didn’t think was a problem because she’d dutifully taken on all the boring logistical problems the group had: taking responsibility for research materials, organizing people’s notes, getting the AV equipment. She’d done more work than anyone, but those immature assholes didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t the exact same work they were doing. When they started bitching at teacher that she shouldn’t get the same grade, I told them all to STFU and listed every contribution she’d made.

When you put people together and force them all to drudge through the same tasks, everyone’s performance is dragged down. What you end up with is an idiot group: one where the output matches the lowest performer involved. The only way to solve this is to find different tasks that fit each person’s skill-set and interests. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A smart group delegates jobs based on people’s individual strengths and covers their weaknesses.

If everyone was as good as everyone else at the same things there would be no need to collaborate in the first place. The whole point of forming a group is to cover all necessary aspects of a project that can’t be done alone. The best collaborations I’ve had were with people who slotted well into all the gaps that needed filling, where people loved doing jobs others hated. Everyone at once could think, “I’m so glad I’m doing X and not Y,” and be confident that someone else was getting Y done because it’s a job the other person enjoys.

People do their best work when they love it (and continue to love it even when it’s frustrating). If you truly hate some aspect of the work you need done, farm it out. That’s what smart people do, because they realize their time is best spent on things they enjoy.

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Take Criticism Like a Pro

“How do you handle feedback?” is a question I get asked from time to time. It’s one I’ve had trouble answering because taking criticism is something I manage well enough that I forget how delicate people can be. Weeks ago I took part in a podcast where feedback was a main topic. I felt afterwards that we kind of made a hash of it because our responses were basically, “Well, feedback is good, right? Right.” I’ve been trying to work out a more helpful answer ever since.

First, feedback is essential to creative growth, just as it is with biological evolution. Without the push-pull of outside forces, life wouldn’t have developed the complexity it has today because it wouldn’t need to. We’d still all be single-celled organisms swilling primordial soup – if that. Of course the process requires death and pain. It’s unavoidable, but beneficial. Just ask someone who can’t feel pain. They’ll tell you their life is a constant struggle not to maim themselves because their body won’t tell them when something’s wrong. For art, the same is true.

But how did I learn to take the pain? I suppose some personal history is in order. First day of art college: the pottery class all got to throw something on the wheel. Afterwards the teacher took a clay wire and sliced all their pots in half. Students whined. Because back in high school everything they made was a precious gem to take home to mommy. This shit, however, would not fly here. Students paid to learn, and that meant dissecting every pot until they stopped sucking.

A similar lesson was carried out in figure drawing class. Students spent days doing nothing but 30-second gesture drawings. They wouldn’t get a good long pose until they’d practiced getting the whole body down in as short a time as possible. This kept students from spending all their time drawing the model’s face, or boobs, or whatever – over focusing on details without grasping the bigger picture. It also taught another valuable lesson: not every stroke of the pen is sacred. It forced students to practice and get used to drawing endless reams of crap.

Every student had to learn how to critique and be critiqued, though these sessions were soft compared to some places online. It was a supportive environment where your work was regularly picked apart. And nearly every student (that didn’t drop out after first year) realized that criticism wasn’t personal. These people were trying to help (even if that help was misguided attempts to get students to stop painting realistically in favor of abstract expressionism because the instructor drank the Greenberg/Rosenberg Kool-aid).

So my answer to how I handle feedback is: training.

Of course finding ways to train your mental feedback forcefield can be difficult, especially if your only available resources are online, where trolls lurk around every corner. The answer isn’t finding some hugbox where criticism isn’t allowed, because these environments are toxic, poisoned by the egos of people who’ve devolved into the creative equivalent bacteria, endlessly eating their own shit and never evolving. To learn how to take criticism you have to seek it out, and that means putting your stuff out there. So what are some ways to ease into it?

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First Scribble Journal (Unfinished Sample)

The Value of Dicking Around

What do you do when your drawing skills are so rusty you can barely draw a straight line and get hand cramps in less than half-an-hour? Discomfort with my drawing tools (including learning all new illustration software) has been a big hurdle to getting back into design. So I’ve been doing something about it: going back to basics. My first step is drawing exercises that are equivalent to practicing scales.

After spending a week repeatedly scribbling on my tablet and clearing the page, I started noticing interesting textures coming out of it. I opened a large page in Pixelmator and scribbled until I’d almost filled the page with black. Then I hit save, and the scribble journal was born.

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From the Competency Plateau to Mastery Mountain

Mastering any skill is a long process filled with learning, practice, and failure. Without learning, all practice will do is ingrain bad habits. If don’t practice, everything you learn will fall right out of your head. And if you never risk failure, you’re hobbling your learning. You need all three, otherwise you plateau.

The slow climb to mastery mountain usually starts with a gentle slope. As you rise in skill, you’ll meet many hikers along the way. At this point, everyone’s a dabbler. There are no real stakes involved. This part of the climb tends to be fun, unless some jerk is hiding in the bushes throwing stones at other people. At this stage, harsh criticism is neither welcome nor helpful – we’ll come to that later.

If you keep at it, you’ll reach the competency plateau. The work is still fun and comfortable. Your skill may even make you money at this stage, because it’s finally good enough that people will pay for it. You’ll have much congenial company here, but don’t fool yourself: most people resting on their laurels aren’t going anywhere. There are three types of people who climb no further:

1. Dabblers are the people who’ve tried something for long enough to figure out they didn’t like it enough to continue. They’re often distracted by far more attractive mountains on the horizon, so they climb down and make the slow ascent up some other track. However, all mountains look blue on the horizon. If you turn from them as they turn to muddy grey, you’re turning away from reality to chase a dream. If you want to turn a dream into reality, you need to grasp the jagged rocks ahead and start climbing.

2. Hobbyists are perfectly happy staying on the plateau because they’re doing it as an escape from their real jobs. Hobbyists are generally chill, so it’s best to leave them to do their own thing. Again, harsh criticism is often not welcome here. Hobbies are great, so don’t come down on someone for not taking something seriously because they’re just having fun.

3. Hacks either keep to themselves, turning out a decent living with competent work, or are pernicious “gurus” who offer to teach you how to climb the mountain ahead, even though they’ve never conquered it themselves. Beware the latter, because he is either a dunce who doesn’t know how awful he is, or is out to scam you. Though, if you only want to learn how to be a competent hack yourself, he has much to teach you. He’s this guy:

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Wagner Spitzer Karikatur (Public Domain)

Great Literary Takedowns: Tolstoy vs. Wagner

I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s scathing indictment of aestheticism in What is Art, his views of which are unpopular to this day because he pretty much hates everything. I’ve been taking notes, so I’ll have more to say on the whole book later. However, I have to share his crotchety-old-man rant about Wagner, because it is hilarious. Tolstoy describes attending a performance of The Ring of Niebelung in 1898 like it was a terrible fever-dream. Here’s his reaction to Act I in all its TL;DR glory:

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