Barbara Baig on Deliberate Practice & Why Hard Work Is More Important than Talent

Golden child of popular psychology Malcolm Gladwell once noted in his groundbreaking study of success, Outliers, that practice is “focused training with the intent of getting better.”  Barbara Baig, founding writing instructor at The Divinity School at Harvard and author of the superb Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, professes a similar philosophy.  Like a pianist who diligently practices his scales or a spelling bee champ who reliably reviews his vocabulary words, writers must dedicate painstaking hours of practice to their craft.  And here Baig makes a crucial distinction: practice isn’t meandering hours spent writing aimlessly; it’s a deliberate attempt to acquire certain skills:

“Practice demands hard work, but hard work by itself is not enough; you also have to know what to work on.  So deliberate practice, first of all, is highly focused.  As Dr. Ericsson explains, deliberate practice is deliberate because it is ‘specifically designed‘ to improve some aspect of an individual’s target performance.

Second, deliberate practice demands a change of attitude: no lackadaisical, ‘oh-whatever’ approach works here.  People engaged in deliberate practice are giving all their attention and energy-every brain cell, every muscle-to that practice.  As Ericsson points out, ‘For expert performers, there’s always effort.  Improvement is never effortless.’  At the same time, such people are not judging what they do; instead they’re noticing what’s working and what’s not working, and they are attempting to bridge the gap they perceive between what they can do and what they want to do.  They bridge this gap in two ways: by getting a clearer, more detailed understanding of the action, the sound, the kind of word they want; and by taking on even more focused practice.  In other words, they practice, not mindlessly or randomly, but strategically.”

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So what qualifies as practicing strategically?  Practicing strategically is seeking the guidance of “teachers”-our most beloved authors-who can instruct us in the mysterious magic of composition.  Practicing strategically is gathering models to emulate and dissecting stellar sentences to see how they work.  Practicing strategically is possessing a profound respect for how each unit contributes to the whole.  In the same way a mechanic learns how a car functions by examining its component parts, writers deepen their understanding of how a sentence operates by studying its most fundamental units.

The masterful writer, at heart, is nothing more than a diligent craftsman: someone who knows the nuts and bolts of his medium.  Like a medieval pilgrim who travels across many lands to behold an ancient relic, the skilled writer reveres language so much he’ll venture through many pages of Roget’s Thesaurus.  He doesn’t simply sit at his desk, day after day, harboring a vague hope of “getting better”; any time he sits at the page, he has a concrete goal: to write with more specificity and precision, to experiment with different kinds of sentence styles and tones.

For Baig, writing is a skill we learn through application, not a lofty theory confined to the academia of university hall.  In this way, the writer has more in common with the athlete than the philosopher: just as a basketball player refines his long-distance technique by actually shooting 3-pointers, a writer polishes his prose by writing, not much else.  Neither the athlete nor writer is born with exceptional talent: they develop their expertise through love and labor.  In fact, much of what we perceive as “talent” is the product of tireless effort alone.  In this indispensable guide to writing, Baig passionately argues there are no prodigies- just hard workers.

Dinner with the Muses: 3 of the Best Books on Writing & Creativity

According to Greek mythology, the muses were divine goddesses responsible for literature, art and the sciences. Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the nine muses- Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Urania-were thought to bestow inspiration on deserving poets in a flash of revelatory insight.

This image of the artist as beneficiary of a generous muse persists to this day. Aspiring writers put off their novel until they’re “inspired”; poets procrastinate haplessly for years, hoping to catch sight of the mythical “a-ha” moment; painters refuse to lift their paintbrushes until they feel possessed by the rapturous urge to create, until they glimpse that magical state of being an instrument, of being a vessel. How many stories go unwritten, how many songs go unsung, how many movies go unfilmed simply because we’re waiting for the unreliable muse to show up?

It’s no secret: writing is tough. The sooner we accept that creation is not the product of providence or an accident of luck but the result of tireless stamina and hard work, the sooner we can tap our hidden potential. Though there are many extraordinary books on writing and creativity, below are three I hold dear. As you sift through their pages, remember the no-nonsense advice of novelist and frontiersman Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

1. Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention

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Called a man obsessed by happiness, Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi spent years interviewing the century’s greatest minds in search of what makes creative people tick.  The result was Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.  Over the course of this landmark study, Csikszentmihalyi examines the many dimensions of the creative personality, outlines the phases of the creative process and even offers insight into the lives of inventive individuals.  Those interviewed range from those we traditionally consider creative like sculptors and poets to scientists and business moguls.  Some of his most impressive participants include Madeline L’ Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful polio vaccine and John Reed, former chairman and CEO of Citicorp.  

What Csikszentmihalyi found was that one thing all creative personalities share is their complexity.  Creative people tend to alternate between a dichotomy of opposing traits, for example introversion and extraversion, playfulness and responsibility.  Though the common man usually inhabits one side of the spectrum, those who are exceptionally creative seem to possess more well-rounded, fully developed personalities.  For example, women in Csikszentmihalyi’s sample were shown to exhibit more stereotypically “masculine” traits like competitiveness and aggression while men were demonstrated to display more conventionally “feminine” qualities like sensitivity and cooperation.

Though Creativity is a work of scholarship grounded in science and supported by intensive lab work, it remains a fascinating study for the everyday reader.  In “Chapter 14: Enhancing Personal Creativity,” Csikszentmihalyi uses his years of research to offer practical advice.  “Another goal of this book,” he explains, “was to learn, from the lives of such men and women, how everyone’s life could be more creative.  How can our days, too, be filled with wonder and excitement?”  It is at this juncture of the book that Creativity moves from academia to self-help, from scientific inquiry to practical application.  Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways to seduce the muse and unlock our creativity, including:

1) find one thing to look forward to each day

2) name one thing, at the end of each day, that surprised you

3) name one way you surprised yourself

Novelty depends on spontaneity and dies in the monotony of routine.  As Creativity points out, committing ourselves to little changes each day can enlarge our thinking and challenge us to find unexpected solutions to once impossible problems.  So take a different route to work, find a new cafe to sit down for breakfast, say yes to an invitation out.  Bottom line: do something different.

2. The Artist’s Way

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I dreaded writing this book review.  “How,” I wondered desperately, “could I possibly do justice to a book that has so completely transformed my life?”  I felt like a super fan of the Fab Four trying to commemorate the Beatles.

So what can I possibly say about Julia Cameron’s smash hit The Artist’s Way?  For starters, this beloved volume has illuminated my path to artistic recovery and helped countless others.  A 12-week course based on creativity workshops Cameron led in 1990s New York, The Artist’s Way will teach you how to:

1.  unblock your creativity so you can be an active-rather than aspiring-artist

2. cherish your inner artist and ignore that perfectionistic, mercilessly mean, critical voice she calls the “Censor”

3. reform unhealthy beliefs you harbor about creativity and adopt more realistic attitudes about the artist’s life

4. cultivate a loving, nurturing attitude toward your art and, more importantly, yourself 

Each of the 12 weeks is organized around a certain theme and is accompanied by a series of checkpoints, essays, and exercises.  In addition to working through each week’s material, Cameron asks that you 1) commit to a daily practice of morning pages and 2) take yourself on an artist’s date every week.  These are what she calls “tools of the trade.” 

Morning pages form the basis of Cameron’s recovery program and are absolutely essential to The Artist’s Way.  So what is this mysterious morning ritual?  Morning pages are three pages of meandering, stream-of-consciousness style writing to be hand written everyday first thing in the morning.  “Wait, hold on one second…” you’re probably wondering, “you want me to write three pages first thing in the morning…every single day?”  When I was introduced to the practice three years ago, I reacted the same way.  Is it a big commitment?  Absolutely.  But nothing will transform your life more radically.  

One part diary, two parts brain drain, the morning pages are your confidante, your trusted ally, a place where you can play on paper.  More importantly, they offer refuge from your inner critic, the Censor.  Writing morning pages everyday will teach you two vital lessons: if you are to write (or film or design or paint or sculpt pottery), you must 1) write in self-trust and liberate yourself from the tyrannous rule of the Censor and 2) write no matter what.  In the end, The Artist’s Way is a masterclass in persistence and un-selfconcious play- the two most crucial qualities of a writer.

3. Becoming a Writer

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Becoming a Writer stands assuredly as the seminal book on writing and creativity.  The original Julia Cameron, author Dorothea Brande actually suggested morning pages 70 years before she did!  From the moment I opened its covers, I adored this book- in fact, when it first arrived at my doorstep, I actually had to pace myself so I wouldn’t finish the whole thing in one sitting.  Elegant but charmingly accessible, each chapter (much like Cameron’s) is accompanied by a series of practical exercises.

Along with following a morning writing routine, Brande advises us to dedicate 15 minutes a day simply to writing.  Why just a mere 15 minutes, you ask?  Well, 15 minutes is a brief enough window for the task to seem doable, less intimidating.  Plus, even the busiest person can spare a mere 15 minutes!

But what’s the difference between this exercise and the morning pages?  Why must we do both?  The morning pages are a ritual we observe-the same time every day-and they are ugly, messy, disjointed stream-of-consciousness.  However, the 15 minute rule is more structured and meant to be completed at varying times of day.  Those 15 minutes need not be spent writing frantically to fill 3 pages (as often is the case with morning pages); they can be used to write about anything that comes to mind: a record/reflection of the day’s events, in the tradition of a formal journal, a brainstorm for an article, a profile of a character, a description of someone.  You can write about anything that strikes your fancy.  And because your mind isn’t dull from sleep, you can harness both sides of the mind-the conscious and unconscious, the critical faculty and the creative- to compose something more formal.

What’s really genius about this exercise is that it tricks you into thinking it’s just another casual, 15 minute task when 15 minutes is just enough to get you hooked; once you begin, you’ll usually write for hours!  It’s this initial “getting started” that frightens most writers, paralyzing them until they can’t work at all.  But when you disguise the daunting task of articulating your thoughts, you can overcome that little devil procrastination and actually put pen to paper.

The cornerstone of Brande’s philosophy is this: writing is an occasion-we must have the discipline and resolve to follow through.  “Work according to program, and not according to mood!” ordered Henry Miller.  No words capture Brande’s message more.  Writing can be such a wearisome task: it invites our worst fears and insecurities to paper.  But forcing ourselves to write everyday, regardless of mood, helps to dispel the prevailing (and dangerous) myth of the mercurial muse.  Many writers imagine composition as an ecstatic, almost mystical revelation-a metaphorical conspiring with the muses.  But when we view writing in this way, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of actually doing the work.  “Oh, I can’t write today!” we moan, “I’m not in the mood!”  Time and time again, we use the myth of the muse to rationalize our own lack of follow through.  But Brande calls bullshit.  Real writers, those who cherish words and respect writing as a profession, recognize writing-like anything else-is a craft that rewards hard work.  Just as a mechanic must understand the tools of his trade-engines, coolant, carborators- writers must master words and gain experience in their field.  Putting pen to page, fingers to keys is the only way we can get such experience.  If we want to be writers, we must write.

Another tenet of Brande’s common sense philosophy is the study of other authors’ work.  “Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen and not merely a means of amusement,” Brande writes, “but to read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.”  No matter how often I preach the importance of annotating to my students, I find myself reluctant to pick up a pen and highlighter when I’m cuddled up with a good book.  Why?  I suppose something about annotating makes reading feel like work.  But as Brande explains, reading critically doesn’t necessarily mean not reading for pleasure.  Nothing is more vital to the understanding (and enjoyment) of a book than reading actively with a pen handy.  Marking up critical passages and noticing patterns and themes forces us to slow down and digest what we read.  Something about going over a passage in bright pink highlighter inspires us to reflect: who are the characters?  what are they like?  what makes them tick?  what themes are emerging as important to the author?  Reading actively promotes higher-order thinking skills and gets us asking questions, which will enrich our experience of any book.

More importantly, studying literature in this way will help us refine our own craft as writers.  I always tell my students the best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader.  By critically reading renowned texts, we’ll be able to dissect how great authors work.  How many sentences of description do they include to set a scene?  Do they reveal character directly through commentary or indirectly through words and actions?  As Brande notes, to be good writers, we must treat each book as a specimen to be studied.  Our bed or quiet corner of a cafe is our laboratory; a pen and highlighter, our microscopes, our tools.  If we approach each book like a curious scientist with an analytical eye, we can access knowledge that can’t be taught otherwise, how to set a mood, for instance, or how to make a sentence “flow.”  Reading Fitzgerald may teach us to describe our experiences non-literally while reading the classic philosophers may show us how to say precisely what we mean in very few words.  Novelists, journalists, poets, essayists-all can be our teachers.  Just as a student must listen attentively and take exhaustive notes if he’s to excel in a course, so do we have to tirelessly participate in our reading if we are to one day walk among the writers we so admire.

We must approach every book this way-with the inquisitiveness of scientists and the diligence of scholars.  How much of a book is lost on the reader who’s lackadaisical!  As authors Adler and Doren once said, a book has much to teach us but only in proportion to how much we are willing to work.  A quick skim of Joyce will yield close to nothing in the way of knowledge.  But a careful, thorough analysis of particular passages might reveal his talent-and help us rise to similar literary eminence. 

4 of the Greatest Books on Happiness

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more casually as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named it flow.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness: a psychological space in which real enjoyment is possible.  In his magnum opus Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceCsikszentmihalyi outlines the nine conditions an activity must meet to bring about this energized focus: 

1. there are clear goals every step of the way (the activity is rule-bound)

2. there is immediate feedback to one’s actions

3. there is a balance between challenges and skills

4. actions and awareness are merged

5. distractions are excluded from consciousness

6. there is no worry of failure

7. self-consciousness disappears

8. the sense of time becomes distorted

9. the activity becomes autotelic

The third condition (there must be a balance between challenge & skill) has always interested me.  For an activity to produce flow, it must first be tailored to our skill level: if it’s too easy, it’s boring but if it’s too difficult, it becomes frustrating and troublesome.  We can only achieve a state of flow when our skills are perfectly matched to the task.  A beginning surfer just learning the sport, say, could reach a “flow” state of consciousness by catching a wave that was just a little tougher than usual- not by trying to ride a 20-footer at Waimea.

Though hedonists have championed the delights of sensual pleasure for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that indulgence can only provide momentary joy- not lasting happiness.  Turns out true contentment begins will the thrill of discovery and challenge- not the passive rewards of leisure.

The irony, of course, is that most of us search for happiness in the very mindless hedonism that makes us miserable.  Exhausted from a long day at the office, most us plop down on the coach, pick up the remote and opt for yet another episode of our favorite idiotic reality show because we want to relax, we want to “zone” out after work.  Sadly, passive amusements like television fail to transport us to that magical altered state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow for this very reason.  Because watching television forces us into the passive role of spectator, it can never supply us with the genuine opportunities for challenge on which happiness so much depends.

So how can we apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings to our own lives?  If we want to be genuinely enthralled with life, we have to locate more opportunities for flow.  Remember: flow-that blissful place where time dissipates and you both lose yourself and find yourself-depends on the right balance between challenge and skill.  In other words, painting a portrait or climbing a treacherous rock face will produce flow- watching yet another tedious hour of television will not.  We must have the discipline and diligence to choose the challenge of a meaningful activity over the ease of something leisurely and trivial.  As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his lifetime of research, superficial merriment or purely hedonistic indulgences can’t fulfill us in the long-term.  That’s why it’s so much more gratifying to resist the chocolate cupcake and go for a run than it is to yield to the craving: resisting temptation is a challenge, it’s an obstacle we have to overcome if we want to reach our goal of losing 20 pounds.  For Csikszentmihalyi, this is where real exhilaration resides: in the hard, single-minded pursuit of one’s goals.

2. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell 

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In modern society, most of us suffer not from depression or dejection but from a general malaise-a feeling, as Thoreau so aptly phrased, of “quiet desperation.”  In his (I think) often underrated masterwork, The Conquest of Happiness, brilliant philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell suggests what he calls a “cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.”  An illuminating volume, The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts: one on the causes of unhappiness; the other on the causes of its converse. 

Fundamentally, Russell’s thesis rests on a rather simple premise: unhappiness derives from self-centeredness, the endless absorption with oneself; happiness results from genuine interest in the outside world.  If we are to uncover our zest for life, Russell argues, we have to be engaged with all the wonder and beauty around us.  Turns out meaningful work is also an essential ingredient to contentment and happiness largely depends on one’s ability to cope with petty annoyances.

Filled with sensible advice and sound reasoning, The Conquest of Happiness– it seems-manages its ambitious aim to cure “ordinary” ennui.  Russell brings his keen scientific mind to the task, methodically investigating every factor of well-being from family and work to excitement and boredom.  Told in his characteristically lucid, astute style, Russell’s voice is wise and matter-of-fact, precise but never pretentious.  Though The Conquest of Happiness is a work of philosophy, at its heart is not theory but common sense. Clever, practical, insightful…this is the kind of book you’ll want to read with a pen in your hand.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

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Self-help sensation The Happiness Project landed on the New York Times best-seller list within minutes of being published and spent an unheard of two years topping the charts.  But does The Happiness Project really deserve all the acclaim?What’s with all the hype? 

I don’t know about you, but the moment something’s all the rage, I can’t flee it fast enough.  Game of Thrones.  Pokemon Go.  Eat Pray Love. Maybe I’m just an obnoxious contrarian at heart but the second a book’s a bestseller, I have no interest in it anymore.

I maintained this close-minded, slightly prejudiced view toward popular culture when The Happiness Project first hit the shelves.  Because I’m deeply fascinated by positive psychology and am (like most) always on a sort of quest to be happier, Rubin’s experiment naturally appealed to me.  But I protested.  Like a pretentious hipster who claims to disdain any band in the top 40, I refused to pick up The Happiness Project because of its popular appeal.

Then, in the fall of 2012, I finally succumbed. 

On a balmy day in early September as crimson and yellow leaves began drifting to the ground, I bought a copy for $15.95 from my favorite used book store.  I probably read the whole thing in 2 days.  Turns out Rubin’s The Happiness Project lived up to the hype.

When the question of how to be happy has consumed philosophers and monks since the beginning of time, how-you might wonder-can a modern writer hope to uncover anything new about the topic?

While Rubin never purports to be original, the way she presents her findings is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.  Accessible and focused on taking real, actionable steps, The Happiness Project traces Rubin’s year long odyssey to decipher the puzzle of how to be happier.  Each month, Rubin tackles a different subject from love and leisure to money and passion and, for every topic, she aims to keep a new set of resolutions.  In September, for example, Rubin’s objective is to pursue a passion.  For the month, her resolutions range from the ambitious (“write a novel”) to the simple and everyday (“make time”).

In the spirit of Enlightenment thinker, writer, and fellow studious, Type-A nut case Benjamin Franklin, Rubin develops a “resolutions chart” to assess her progress toward her goals.  And like Franklin, Rubin’s aims represent nothing short of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” 

Though it seems absurd to condense the fundamentally incalculable goal of attaining “moral perfection” to checks and pluses on a chart, I think what makes The Happiness Project resonate with so many people is its emphasis on what can be done right now.  Rubin’s happiness project isn’t an overhauling of her life: she’s not Thoreau abandoning the hurried pace of civilization for the quiet seclusion of Walden Pond, she’s not Elizabeth Gilbert galavanting across three continents to sip wine in Italy and meditate in India.  “I didn’t want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change,” she confesses in the introduction, “I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.  I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”

While not everyone can abandon their lives to join the Peace Corps, Rubin’s philosophy asserts, certainly most everyone can do simple things like fight right and clean more.  With her emphasis on taking small steps over big gigantic leaps and implementing uncomplicated systems of accountability like her handy resolutions chart, Rubin offers her readers real ways to be happier in this moment…without having to do something as crazy/terrifying as moving half way across the world.  Blending the wisdom of the ages with personal anecdote and cutting-edge scientific research, Rubin will remind you of man’s extraordinary ability, as Thoreau once observed, “to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

4. You are a Badass by Jen Sincero 

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I’ll begin this review with three simple words: read this book.  This is one of those rare books that I can say truly changed my life…and will change yours.

The wonderful poet and diarist Anais Nin once said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  In my mid (okay, technically late) 20s, I think I’ve reached a point in my life where this observation is unsettlingly true.  If I continue to remain in the bud, if I continue refusing, as mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once penned, to “say a hearty yes to the adventure of my life,” one thing is certain: there are many thrilling, ecstatic, exhilarating, joyful, invigorating, earth-shattering experiences I’ll miss out on!  

In a voice that’s as outrageously candid as it is hysterical, Sincero points out that the decision to embrace your inner badass is no small matter: these are our lives we’re talking about.

 So, she asks us, will we squander the miracle of living and consign ourselves to mediocrity and quiet desperation?  Or will we have the boldness to chase after our dreams with a sledge hammer?

For most people, remaining securely in the bud is safe.  There’s no potential for heart-breaking humiliation or rejection or failure.  Though our lives are as bland and unexciting as saltine crackers, we remain tight in the bud because it’s easy: it requires little to no effort.  And most of us are lazy motherfuckers. We’re lazy and we’re eager to please and we’re scared.

Scared of what might happen if we blossom into the most exceptional versions of ourselves.

Scared of the expectations we’d have to live up to.

It’s absurd how terrified most of us are of leading lives we’re excited about; we prefer the security of the familiar to the terror of the unknown, even though we know flowers weren’t meant to be confined to their petals-they were meant to bloom.

Full of practical tips and sage advice, You are a Badass is a self-help book that will actually rouse you to radically transform your life-not just inspire you to half-heartedly commit for 5 minutes.  “I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” we usually declare at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, convinced of our unwavering commitment.  Fast forward 6 days and we’re scarfing down Haggen Daz by the bucket full while sprawled out on the coach.

Why?  What happened to our convictions?

The sad truth is that the fire to revolutionize our lives quickly burns out.  Tedious day-to-day obligations-our mortgages, our phone bills-usually snuff out the grand ambition to reinvent ourselves.

Sincero empowers you with the tools to stop believing your same old lame ass excuses and start living a life you’re crazy about (all while swearing profusely and making you laugh out loud).  In You are a Badass, Sincero will teach you how to:

  1. challenge self-limiting beliefs and harness the power of positive thinking
  2. recognize the power of your thoughts to shape what you think is possible and manifest what you want
  3. meditate so you can connect with the Source and more fully enjoy the present moment
  4. cultivate gratitude so you can appreciate all you have now
  5. reform your self-sabotaging behaviors so you can build a life you’re actually psyched about

“Whatever you desire to do with your precious life-write jokes or rock out or start a business or learn to speak Greek or quit your job or raise a bunch of kids or fall in love or lose your flab or open orphanages around the world or direct movies or save dolphins or make millions or live in a canyon in a loincloth-” Sincero implores us, “believe that it’s possible. And that it’s available to you. And that you deserve to be/do/have it. Why not?”