0074 – stop sharpening the axe

Here’s an interesting phenomenon I wasn’t expecting to witness until say 200 or 300 posts into this 1000 post commitment- people are actually starting to hit the posts directly. Not many, and maybe it’s just haters and trolls who’re coming to see what a loser I am, but there are some hits. I’m thinking about the local vs global optimals I talked about in the previous post. My “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study” post (word vomit 0049) has over 1,350 hits at the time of this writing, overtaking quite a few of my more carefully deliberated blogposts. The next one comes much further- word vomit 0004 (NS/transience) has over 100 hits, as does 0041 (procrastination/focus). Then there are a bunch of posts with 40, 60, 80 hits. I wasn’t expecting this much, and I’m just getting started. I bet things will get really interesting around word vomit 700, or maybe earlier.

To go from a local optimal to a global optimal, you first have to navigate an unfriendly, indifferent valley that’s going to really suck emotionally. The trick to doing this I think is to detach oneself from the outcome- to trust in statistics and probabilty (or God, if you like) and believe that as long as you keep walking, keep swimming, keep writing, this too shall pass. You will leave your comfort zone and receive no validation for it for a long time, but that’s okay because you’re walking. Keep walking.

So I’m committed to doing 1,000 word vomits of at least 1,000 words each, not because it’s going to yield me a new optimal in my writing (though it likely will. Not necessarily a global optimal, but surely at least some optimal beyond what I’ve attained so far), but because it’s going to be interesting. There’s no way any reasonably intelligent person can do something outside her comfort zone a thousand times and not get better at it in some way. What was blur and vague will become clearer. I’m a big fan of the “draw this again” meme (do a Google image search for it), which demonstrates how every single artist gets better overr time. Every single one. The trick is to keep at it for a year or longer. Some of them demonstrate more drastic improvements than others- and those are typically the ones owho have much more deliberate practice schedules (google “Karen X Dance In A Year”).

Look at how QuestionableContent (a webcomic) has improved artistically over the past decade. See the latest comic, then jump back and see the first comic, and type random numbers- say, 200, 400, 600, 800, etc. Transformational. The same surely applies to the written word and any other craft.

Quality doesn’t happen without quantity. This is still taking me a while to come to terms with, as a lazy bugger who hates starting. You have to write the shitty poems to get to the good ones. Sure, maybe analysing poetry and reading about the lives and history of your favourite poets will give you some insight that might make you a better poet- but there’s only so much your first shitty poem is going to improve by. The best way to get better at something is to do it, then get feedback. The doing is the easiest and hardest part.

I said “hates starting” because it’s not true that work or practice sucks. Getting up in the morning sucks. Closing all your distracting tabs suck. Putting on your running shoes and getting out of the house sucks. Once you’re on your way, though, sticking to it is always fairly easy. I think it’s because we tend to see the whole epic practice session and we freeze because it’s intimidating. All we really ought to commit to is the start. Commit to the immediate next step, and that is all. As long as I start writing, I can keep going.

It’s actually pretty rare that I start a word vomit and not finish it because I ran out of steam- the main cause of my incomplete word vomits are external interruptions- I’m writing on the train and I’ve arrived at work (maybe I should make it a point to keep writing first until I’m done, because then I have a clearer mind). Once I get started it’s pretty hard to stop. I can keep going all day. I should probably set aside a day to see how many vomits I can do in a single day. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more than 10. (That doesn’t mean they’ll all be good, but done is better than perfect, because you can work with done.)

I feel like my guitar playing hasn’t improved very much over the years because I’m rarely deliberate in my practice. I mostly play to while away the time and to enjoy myself, with occasional bursts of “I want to understand this instrument better so I can get more out of it.” I’ve been playing since sec 2 or so, which means… almost 10 years now. But I bet somebody who practiced really hard could get way better than me in 6 months or a year.

Which says something about the power of focus, isn’t it? Six months of intense practice with a musical instrument will give you a level of competence and expressiveness that will provide you with a lot of joy in the long run. Once you’ve gotten that far, you’ll probably stick with it for longer and that’s how professionals are born.

Nothing I’m saying is new. There really is nothing new about pretty much anything. We already all know everything we need to know to do what we need to do in the immediate sense. You shouldn’t chop wood without sharpening your axe, yes, but I suspect that the “chopping with blunt axes” team is much smaller than the “sharpening our axes until we can fell an entire forest with a single swing” team.

And here’s the humiliating truth- the guy who’s chopping with a blunt axe is making more progress than me when I’m sitting in my head sharpening my axe. The sharpest axe in the world is useless if you aren’t swinging.

So just keep swinging. The axe-sharpening stuff is easy in contrast. For me, at least.

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