September 2014

The way of meaning

by Steve Brock on September 25, 2014

Artist Tools

A quick trip over to gave me two definitions of the word, “meaning:”

1)     That which is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.

2)   The end, purpose or significance of something.

Both apply when we talk about meaningful travel. And interestingly, neither imply that for travel to be meaningful, you have to travel far.

Case in point: This last weekend, my wife and I headed up to Edmonds, WA, about 15 minutes north of Seattle. It’s far enough away not to seem overly familiar yet close enough to reach without concerns of it being a “big trip.”

Why go? Because that weekend 23 different artists’ studios were open to the public. This, we found out from one of the artists we visited, is the 9th year they’ve done the tours of the studios. I’d call them more open houses than tours, but why get picky about terms? The result was that we were able to meet dozens of artists (some studios hosted multiple artists), see their works and get to know the art scene there better.

We also had a wonderful lunch, wandered the extensive farmer’s market in downtown Edmonds, visited some favorite stores and overall had a great day on the last (and glorious) day of summer.

All well and good, you might say, but why was it meaningful?

Let’s go back to the second definition of “meaning,” “the end, purpose or significance of something.” What was the purpose of our trip? To visit artist’s studios and see art. But here’s the real question: What was the significance of it?

That’s harder to answer, yet more important. Significance is often not something that is readily explained.

Think about the people or experiences that have mattered most to you. Can you summarize quickly and succinctly why they matter? Chances are, you have to think about it, reflect on it and even then, your answers may feel either overblown or inadequate, like trying to describe the color yellow or the smell of a rose.

Often what matters most to us is what is hardest to express to others. Meaning isn’t always translatable.

Regarding our trip this weekend the short answer – at least for now – is that our time was meaningful because it reminded us of how important art is in our lives. Not just individually, but to us as a couple:

  • Our first date was to an art museum. Make that three museums. In one day.
  • I knew on our third date – in the garden of another art museum – that this was the woman I was going to marry. The fact that we were surrounded by the beauty of nature and art didn’t lead me to that realization. Or maybe it did in ways I’m only now understanding.
  • Our oldest son is a graphic design major in college. He called last night to talk about how to balance a passion for art with ministry and serving others. Our words to him? Whoever said they weren’t or couldn’t be the same thing?
  • As I passed my youngest son’s room a few minutes ago, I see that he is deeply engaged in his latest art project.

So why was our mini-trip to visit artists’ studios so meaningful? I can’t tell you more than I just did. But perhaps, as is the way of meaning, that’s enough.

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Fake it…

by Steve Brock on September 17, 2014

Mt. Rainier PeakI’ve long held that my theology does not include the word “coincidence.” But I still find wonder in how diverse threads of conversations and seemingly random bits of data somehow show up in the space of days as if bearing little tags tied to them with the message, “You may want to pay attention to all this…”

In response to last week’s entry on mastery, Doug asks how to get his son to work past the hard part of learning something new. John comments on the same thing from a different angle. Then another friend, Hillary, relays her tale of summiting her first mountain and the wisdom passed on to her at a point where she was struggling, not sure if she could go any farther.

“There are two types of fun,” a seasoned climber told her. “The first are experiences where you have fun at the time of the experience. The second are ones where you are miserable at the moment, but have incredible fun and reward later looking back on the experience. Mountain climbing is almost always the second kind of fun.”

And that little insight got her to the top.

So what gets you to the top, figuratively speaking? What keeps you going, especially when you’re learning something new and the initial enthusiasm or the “This could be fun” feelings are but a memory?

At the risk of sounding trite, I will tell you the best advice I know:

You fake it till you make it.

Behaviorist psychology research has demonstrated that it is much easier to change an action than an attitude. That’s contrary to the popular notion that if you just get a better attitude – Happy thoughts everybody! Happy thoughts! – you’ll make it through your hard situation. But even Hillary received her encouragement as she was in the midst of trudging up the mountain, i.e. the words helped, but it was putting one foot in front of the next that got her to the top.

It’s really no different in marriage: You won’t always feel the passion for your spouse. Of course I ALWAYS do (just in case you’re reading this, dear)! But for most people, we go through dry periods in our relationships with loved ones and even our relationship with God. We do forget our first love. So then what do we do?

We fake it till we make it.

We remember why we once loved someone or something and that can help. But more than anything, we do the actions that will then change the attitude.

As Woody Allen once noted, “80 percent of success is showing up.” And as we noted last time, sometimes you have to just keep doing what you love (or once loved) until you love what you’re doing. That’s the heart of mastery; practicing through the dullness until the passion returns.

A few years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a whole issue on inspiration. In summarizing everything that they learned about where creativity comes from, they articulated it with these few words. Note in particular their last line:

“(The enigmatic nature of creativity), it turns out, is often not so enigmatic. Step 1: Work. Step 2: Be frustrated. Step 3: Repeat.

Yep. That’s it. Take all the different styles and techniques from writers, artists, musicians, directors and a host of other creative people and it all comes down to that: work, be frustrated, repeat.

Whenever you’re learning something new – and all creative (or at least innovative) work is, by its very nature, something new – you’ll hit a wall where practice or the work itself is no longer fun. Looking for inspiration from others can be a start. Remembering what you originally loved about it can motivate somewhat. But nothing will help you do it more than just doing it. Over and over.

And then, likely when you’re so numb to it that you just don’t care anymore, that’s when you’ll awaken to find something you thought was forever lost: your passion and inspiration. And when that happens, you’re almost thankful for the dry, hard season because the contrast makes the return so much sweeter.

So when (not if, when) you reach that frustrating point of learning something new, traveling when it’s no longer fun or rising above the plateau where you feel stuck, remember this tired old expression: Fake it till you make it.

For if you do, you will.


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The paradox of mastery

by Steve Brock on September 12, 2014

Fishing on the Deschutes

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky’s famous saying applies to all forms of mastery: once you know your field intimately, you’re able to play ahead or see beyond the present situation, anticipating what will come next. But you only get to that enviable position through mastery. Otherwise, if you play beyond the puck as a beginner, you likely end up crashing into the wall.

So how do we achieve mastery?

That’s a bigger question than I can cover in one entry here. But let’s explore one aspect of it, what I call the paradox of mastery. You’ve likely heard the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of doing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities.

What does seem to apply if you want to master something is interest. Seems obvious, but here’s where the paradox of mastery kicks in. Sometimes, when seeking to learn something new like fly fishing or even travel (for good travel is a learned discipline), you want to try and become good at it as fast as you can. You have interest, even passion, so you engage it and practice as much as you can.

All well and good until you practice beyond your passion.

Sometimes when learning something new, we simply try too hard too soon. Remember the point about how 15 minutes a day of practicing a musical instrument or new language will reap greater results than three hours in a single marathon session? The same principle applies to trying too hard.

Unless you really are striving to become a pro at a new area of learning, learn to do it for the simple reason that you love it. The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it don’t care. It is in the doing we find our satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where the paradox of mastery comes back in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency.

Once you do, the magic takes over: The better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to.

Enjoying the process of learning is as critical to mastery as being really good at something. In fact, it’s hard to get to the latter without the love of the process itself. So enjoy every mistake along the way.

Going back to the Gretzky quote, one conclusion you could thus make about mastery is this:

Learn to be content with where you are and you’ll ironically proceed and improve faster than if you focus on where you aren’t yet.

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Eliminate your variables

by Steve Brock September 4, 2014

When learning a new sport or any new skill – even learning to travel well – you’ll increase competency faster when you tackle each aspect or variable one at a time.

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