Mastering new creative skills – The importance of adopting a growth mindset.

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Have you ever found yourself entranced, glued to Youtube, watching someone do something very ordinary or seemingly mundane to a very high standard? Take this guy cleaning a carpet. There can be something deeply satisfying about seeing people be everyday badasses, showing off a mastery of skills that elevate regular jobs or everyday activities into some sort of art form – it can be captivating, even hypnotic, and makes for compelling viewing.

I’ve heard this be called ‘Competence Porn’, and I can see why. It brings a certain deep sense of satisfaction through seeing people being extremely competent at stuff. Much of it we discover through our own desire to learn a new skill, a search to find out ‘how to’ do something, but learning from it is often not the reason that we keep on watching it. 

Take drain unblocking, surely this is one profession that really can’t be elevated to an art-form? You’d be wrong, this Australian team ‘Drain Addict’ are nailing it, with some of their 400 or so drain unblocking videos racking up millions of views (see blocked drain 308) – trust me that moment when the blockage finally becomes clear is strangely satisfying.

Watch this chap from Baumgartner fine art restoration meticulously restoring this ancient relic. Or this bloke skilfully trimming a hedge.

Most of us readily admit that we’d like to attain mastery of new skills, whether it’s skateboarding tricks, cake making, stand-up comedy or oil painting, and these days we have a huge, instantly accessible resource bank of (often self-proclaimed) experts and so-called influencers to access to help us get there – think Youtube, Twitch and even Quora.

The key thing here to actually making it happen and getting good at something new, is in approaching this learning with the right kind of positive mindset – what some call a ‘growth mindset’. That’s because these amazing online resources and these so-called experts can, rather than enable, be what prevents you from mastering a new skill. Confused? Let me explain.

When we want to learn a new skill, often our first stop now is Youtube, and that’s ok if you want to pick something up that can be taught in 5 mins. Like ‘how to tie a bow tie’ or ‘how to bleed a radiator valve’, but when it comes to the more creative skills, often we are looking for shortcuts that don’t really exist and certainly aren’t a substitute for experience and hard work.

We get into creative work because we have good taste.”  Ira Glass

The trouble is that we can’t satisfy our own discerning appreciation for good work very quickly when we attempt to learn a new skill. Take learning the guitar for example, in order to get any good at it you have to spend a lot of time listening to yourself sound very, very bad. Offending our ears and our own innate sense of taste in the process. I know this from personal experience, and the inevitable happened – I gave up learning the guitar pretty quickly.

Ira Glass called this the ‘Taste Gap’  and I think it’s explained quite articulately in this short video.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

So the existence of such easy to access mastery and such excellent ‘competence porn’ can be a double edged blade, serving as inspiration initially and then becoming especially off-putting as you struggle to produce things of a comparable standard. 

The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.” – Ira Glass 

Almost everything we make at the beginning tastes crap, looks awful or does not live up to our ambitions in some way. Occasionally we might fluke something or find a natural aptitude, but generally speaking getting good at something takes a lot of practice and often, a lot of failure.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book Outliers, calling it the “10,000 Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way for a total of approximately 10,000 hours. Whether this is precisely true or not is a matter of debate but you get the idea – getting really really good at something takes a long, long time.

This is where the growth mindset is critical. This way of thinking says, with proper application and effort, you can absolutely be as skilled as you want to be – despite how rubbish you feel you are now. Whereas a fixed mindset would probably have you, in an effort to not look bad, either never trying it in the first place or giving up pretty quickly.

The terms ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ come from psychologist Carol Dweck and her book and theory of the two mindsets and the difference they make in outcomes is very powerful. 

They are also referred to as open and closed mindsets, and I’ll attempt to give a simplistic description of the theory. In a fixed mindset, people believe largely that their qualities are set and unchangeable and tend to want to prove themselves correct rather than accept and learn from their mistakes. They have a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges and often feel threatened by the success of others.  A growth mindset is based on “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” a person with a growth mindset learns from criticism, embraces challenge and sees effort as the path to mastery. 

My own personal interpretation is that it’s not quite as black and white as all that and we may approach different things with different mindsets at different times, but the important point is recognising the mindset you are approaching something with. When it comes to learning a creative skill these growth mindset traits are the difference between success and failure, embracing challenges, making mistakes and learning from them, taking criticism onboard and persistence through setbacks are what give you the skills to achieve your initial ambitions.

Faced with such expertise and profound ability as we see online everyday – many of us are helped into the fixed mindset trap of never trying to do anything new because “I’ll never be able to be that good”, or giving up early because we’re just not good at something straight off the bat.

In this fast paced, famous for fifteen minutes society I think it’s worth taking stock that without patience, practice and hard work you’ll not achieve your creative ambitions, and having the right mindset throughout will help see you through.

Will the work you’re making be as good as your ambitions? It will take time, and determination, actually, mostly likely it’s gonna take you a really bloody long time. And you just have to persevere, stay strong, accept that you’re going to fail (probably quite a lot) and carry on, okay?

Thanks to Ben Hammersley for the inspiration to write this post and for introducing me to Ira Glass and Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration.