Friday, September 16, 2011


Belvidere, IL

We were sitting around in Toronto, having slept in after a late (but fun) night. Suddenly, I realized everyone else seemed to have stopped getting ready and was just sitting around. I glanced around, and sure enough they all looked ready to go.

"Give me a second. I'm finishing up a blog post."

"You write a blog?" Alex said. "I thought about doing that, but I'm not any good at writing."

"Then start writing a blog. That's how you get better."

I started writing a blog just before my 18th birthday. My friends and I wanted a way to keep in touch after high school, so we all decided to start a blog on xanga and write on them to keep everyone updated on what we were doing in college.

My posting at first was... interesting. Alright, let's be honest, it's bad. For example, my second post includes the line "I'm finally ungrounded, which is cool." Many of my posts are about physics homework or inside jokes, and while I enjoy going back and reading them for the nostalgia and memories, it's certainly not good writing. It's not much different than hearing a teenager talk to their friends.

Little by little, my posting changed: I started arguing with people on other blogs in the comments section, and they came to mine and argued. First it was about music - there were a few very persistent people who insisted that Metallica was the best band ever - and then when those same people started arguing politics, I started writing about current events more. Writing about politics transferred into writing about religion, and eventually I started writing philosophical posts. The first ones I wrote are... well, when I go back and read them now, all I can think is "man, I was pretentious." But over time they got better, and my writing started sounding less like a stuck-up teenager, and occasionally even sounding like a thoughtful adult.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000 hour rule." The rule is a short way of saying this: one of the main keys to success is spending a lot of time doing something. You can study up on the available resources, you can listen to the experts, you can plan out your meteoric rise to the top... but you're not going to be good until you actually sit down and start doing it. A lot.

And the experts back this up. Two of my favorite bloggers have talked about this before, that to be a good writer you need to just write, not study. Chris (the interview at the second link) even talks sometimes about ignoring the experts completely when you're figuring out how to do what you want to do. I think it certainly helps to look at people who are doing something similar to what you want to do, and study what you like about it, but it's not necessary.

It seems obvious when you put it that way, yet many people don't get that repetition is such a huge part of being good at a creative art. They start writing, or drawing, or playing an instrument, and they're not that good. So they say to themselves, "I guess I'm not good at that." And they stop. So they never get better, and they spend the rest of their life saying "I'm not good at writing," and use that as an excuse to not write a blog, or a book, or even an essay.

Part of the problem is that when you start, you suck, but most people don't start doing something they're not interested in - you don't start writing if you don't like reading, you don't start playing an instrument if you don't like listening to music, you don't start doing stand-up unless you like listening to comedians. With few exceptions, the path takes us from being a consumer of something, to attempting to produce it. And that leads to a roadblock: you know what good art looks like - good writing, good comedy, good music -because you've been consuming it, and therefore you know that yours isn't good. Listen to Ira Glass, of This American Life, talk about this:

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Another roadblock people face is that they have this desire to become a writer or a musician... but they have a much weaker desire to write, or play music. I don't remember where I heard it, but I once heard someone say "There's a difference between wanting to become a writer, and wanting to write." The people who become writers don't get there because they imagined themselves doing book signings. Really good musicians didn't get there by imagining themselves up on stage. Good actors didn't get there by imagining walking down the red carpet. They got there by doing. If you want to play guitar, you will spend a lot of time playing guitar - and as a consequence, you'll get good at playing guitar, and maybe become a musician. But if you want to become a musician, there's no direct path from that desire to the actual playing. Wanting to be a guitar player does not lead to a desire to play guitar, as many college kids have discovered.

It takes a strong desire - a desire to actually do the thing you want to be good at - to motivate yourself enough to spend 10,000 hours doing it. If you spend an hour a day playing guitar, every day, every week, every month, every year - it will still take you almost 30 years to get to 10,000 hours. Even spending 4 hours every weekday and taking weekends off, it will still be 10 years.

It's important to point out too that simple repetition isn't enough. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Every time you do this, it will be a microcosm of the initial "I suck at this" roadblock. Once you get a little good at something, it's tempting to just sit on your laurels and keep doing exactly what you're good at - you learned Wonderwall, so you sit around and play it for your friends over and over. Pushing outside your comfort zone means sucking again, which is hard. But you can't learn calculus by adding 1+1 over and over again for 10,000 hours. If you suck at algebra, you're going to have to go through that phase of trying to do something you suck at before you can get up to calculus.

Some people are born with talents. There are plenty of youtube videos you can watch of 3-year olds playing drums, or a 5-year old makeup artist, or any number of other people that seem to just have some talent without having to work. And it's really easy to look at them and say, "Well I wasn't born with it, I guess I'm just not good at it." And so you imagine what it would be like if you had been born with some amazing talent, and how good you would be... but you never get around to actually doing it. Because when you sit down to actually do, heck, you're not even as good as that 3-year old you saw on youtube, so why even try?

Ze Frank - a guy who did a videoblog for a while a few years ago - came up with a name for that: Brain Crack. Brain Crack is when you sit around imagining what it would be like if you were really good at something, instead of actually doing the something. That way, you get all the pleasure of being good at something by imagining what it would be like if you were good, without any of the risk of sucking.

One of the coolest examples I've seen of gradual improvement by just doing is the webcomic Questionable Content. Look at the first one, and then look at the most recent one. It's a HUGE difference! Even though that first one isn't great art, he just started putting it out there. If you go through all the comics from the beginning, there's no point where he suddenly "got better." It was just gradual improvements over time, and he even occasionally comments below the comic that he's "trying a new technique" and going out of his comfort zone.

But by getting things out into the world, setting deadlines, and forcing yourself to do, you can get better. It's probably going to suck at first, but little by little you can improve. So get out there. And Do.


  1. In young Eric's defense, it's totally cool to be ungrounded.