Bold title. I know, but hear me out….

We’ve all heard the tropes: Never stop learning. You can always be better. 10,000 hours to Mastery.
But you know what? That 10,000 hours is useless without The Single Most Important Thing in Learning Any Art:

A technical understanding of chosen art that will allow you to see your own mistakes.

The truth it’s not 10,000 hours. It’s 10,000 hours of active improvement and until you can see the thing that needs improvement, you can’t work to fix it on the next iteration. It’s the reason a lot of my hours in art haven’t counted. I have well over 10,000 hours in visual arts.  Arts conservatory high school, art camp, and then studio arts in college. Much of the time I was one of the worst students in any class. Figuring it out how to learn eventually changed that very suddenly.

Now, I feel like I am constantly meeting people who swear they’ve put hours and hours into something and they’re positive that they’ll never get better at it. It’s exasperating because even when I was bad at art, I never thought about giving up. But I also feel a lot of empathy for them. I was in the same place, where my hours hadn’t resulted in commiserate skill,  and it’s also not really their fault any more than it was mine.  For all that people are educated, some people never learn how to learn.  That’s because its not necessarily something that we talk about very much.  In the U.S., our schools focus a lot on memorization as opposed to self-analysis and iterative improvement. 

I often tell people that at the end of things, what I learned, in art school, was not how to make things, but how to see.

This is the thing that you will get from really great teachers. People who show you how to compare the negative space between objects to help you put them correctly in proportion. Or help you understand exactly what that one muscle should feel like if you correctly execute a fencing move. The ability to self analyze is priceless.

Finding that understanding is the single best reason to take classes, but more so, it’s the thing that you should be actively seeking when you take a class.

When I start learning a new skill, I no longer simply ask: how do I do this thing. But rather:

  • What are the things that are key elements indicative of excellent craftsmanship?
  • What things should I be looking for if I want to make this better?
  • What are the most important elements of this process?
  • What things can I use as indicators of my progress?

If you think that those are obvious questions to ask at the beginning of a process, then congratulations. You may not realize it, but you are ahead of a great many people. Most people try to learn the process before they learn how to analyze their results. 

An example: People often know their calligraphy looks bad, but they can’t put words to why they think that’s true. 9/10 times, its one of two things. Either A) Their verticals aren’t actually straight/consistent and are instead leaning or crooked (sometimes both ways). Or B) They have an uneven x height, and their text ends up looking really awkward because nothing aligns and there’s nothing for the eye to follow when its reading. What about the 10th time? Mostly bad kerning, but I digress…

The point is that calligraphy is rarely taught hand in hand with of typography. The basics of how hands/fonts align visually, which elements create repeating patterns, how those things contribute to legibility, and the rules around when letters can ligatured or flourished… All of those technical understandings contribute to the ability to assess your own work, mistakes, and progress.

Towards the end of college, my work finally started to get good enough that I felt I could be proud enough of it to not disown it. Basically, art that gets to live in your portfolio forever, even if you make better things later. That change wasn’t so much the accumulation of a decade+ of arts education, but rather two classes where I was really able to understood what constituted “good” with an instructor who really coached his students through the thought process of analyzing artistic concepts and technicalities in our own work.

I started trying to learn mandolin earlier this year. Let me tell you: it has been a humbling experience, because it’s a different set of muscle memory and its difficult to me. I was trying to learn on my own and it wasn’t going well. I had asked questions of more experienced musicians and was mostly told: you’ve barely started. It will come with practice. 

But that’s not true, or at least, it’s not entirely true. The muscle memory will come, but if I’m doing it wrong, I’ll build bad habits into my muscle memory.  I know now, how false it is that hours = excellence.

I ultimately ended up hiring a music teacher. Together we’ve done theory, rhythm exercises. He’s helping me to understand what my fingering looks like when it’s correct and how I should hold my hand, my elbow. Little things like how much my knuckles should be from the fret board during transition. I can use his eyes as my guide for what I should be looking for when I practice.

So TLDR version: Learn what you’re looking at and what constitutes excellence before you learn to do a thing. It is not enough to know that its beautiful. Have someone explain why.