How To Master your Craft

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Bruce Lee

Is there something you want to be really, really good at some day? A craft, of which you wish to become a master?

For me, it’s storytelling. I find the more I give, the more I get – the longer my feet spend dipped in the water of this ancient and formidable artform, the more I want to chuck my whole body in. What am I aiming for? Novels? Screenplays? Rock operas? I don’t know, and at least for the moment, I’m enjoying learning far too much to give a shit.

But it’s not all smiles and roses. I might have a burning desire to master this thing. I might not care if it takes me a decade to come up with something I can truly hang my hat on.

I still don’t really know how to proceed.

Moving beyond the clichés

If you’ve been reading my writing for a while, then you’ll know already that I’m well-versed at all the clichés. I’ve probably passed them on to you several times apiece. Show up every day. Do your work. Practice makes perfect. Sit at a typewriter and bleed.

Now, that’s nice advice. But it’s about as helpful as Anne Frank’s drum kit.

Back to you. What should you do if – like me – you’ve been fortunate enough to find something you’re willing to devote years of your life to in search of mastery, but you fear that, without some kind of strategy, you are liable to just spin your wheels and run in circles for the next decade?

Well, first, breathe. Because, clichés aside, you will get there. Whilst it might not be enough to have nothing but a burning desire for mastery, you’ll get nowhere without it. So let’s not put down passion, let’s not discount motivation, let’s not pretend it’s all about practice and being a nerd.

But then let’s look at how to practice and be a nerd.

A skill is not a craft. A craft is not a skill.

A skill, according to Wikipedia, is the ability to carry out a task with determined results often within a given amount of time, energy, or both.

A craft, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess of dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller skills, that combine to produce results exponentially more powerful than the sum of their parts.

Cooking is a craft. Sharpening a knife, chopping an onion, sweating a leek, and seasoning a sauce, are all skills.

Songwriting is a craft. Rhyming a lyric, structuring a song, recording a demo, and seducing somebody into listening to it, are all skills.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here is the most important difference for us between a skill and a craft:

It is impossible to work directly on a craft. But it is possible to work directly on a skill. So…

Focus on the skills

It goes like this:

  1. Pick a skill that forms a part of your craft.
  2. Find the practicing sweet-spot – not so easy that you’re bored, and not so difficult that you’re frustrated.
  3. Practice the skill over and over and over until it’s easy.
  4. Move onto another skill.

There is magic in this process. As you’re busy focusing on your skills, something wonderful is going on behind the scenes. You are mastering your craft.

It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but the way to get master your craft is largely to ignore it. Instead, pour your undivided attention into some small aspect of it.

What about trial and error?

Well, yes, of course. If you simply “just do” the thing you want to master for long enough, you will eventually master it. Unlike most approaches, trial and error, over an infinitely long period of time, actually guarantees you success. You can’t lose.

There’s just one problem with that: you don’t have an infinitely long period of time. You have your life. And life is nothing if not finite.

So maybe you have the time to waste on trial and error. I don’t. I want to master the art of story… in this lifetime. And if there’s a way that can help me to do that, well then I’m going to prioritise it over trial and error.

And though, because I am a fool, I have only limited experience of this approach, I can tell you that every time I’ve applied it, the results – in my best Brian Butterfield voice – have been… incredible.

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