I’m in the middle of reading Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief, which is what we in the review biz call “a book.” (It’s fine. You may as well read it.) But one of the essays in particular is kind of sticking in my craw. It’s called “Getting Good,” and it’s about, well, the processes by which one gets good.
Russo likes to write essays about a bunch of things that are really about one thing. So even though he talks about garage bands, self-publishing, and carpentry, he’s really trying to triangulate on what it means to get good as a writer (I think that’s what he’s doing. The book is fine. Skim it, see for yourself).
I’ll be 36 this year, which means I’ve entered middle age, assuming fate has condemned me to bear witness to the climate apocalypse as it unfolds through 2055. I always figured by now I would be pretty confident in my abilities as a professional writer, but most days I wade through the Amazon of my subconscious and just hope not to be eaten alive by the piranhas of self-doubt and insecurity.
Still, I show up to work every day, and I haven’t been fired. On those qualifications, I’m going to tell you how to get good.
You have to put in the time.
Pop psychologists say 10,000 hours, but let’s be real for a second—the 10,000-hour rule assumes that you can put in a particular kind of (very strict, very supervised) practice for several hours a day, usually over the course of ten years.
If that was true, nobody would be good at anything. It shouldn’t be a total surprise, then, that the 10,000-hour rule has been pretty well discredited, at least in terms of how it’s been popularly understood.
In my experience, it’s been more useful to think of “putting in the time” as “cultivating a daily practice,” rather than trying to hit a particular number of hours. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you do it every day, evaluate your work, and continue to learn, you’ll get better. It’s simple, even if it isn’t always easy.
You probably need a mentor (or six).
There’s been a lot written lately about mentors. Professionally speaking, it would be great if you could find a mentor further along your career path, someone who will take a special interest in your success. But if you’re like me, after reading enough tweets from famous people cryptically thanking their more famous mentors, you start to feel a bit of FOMO. Why, you might wonder, can’t I attract a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning author to invest his time, attention, and—yes, let’s just say it—love in me as a person?
But mentors can come in many forms. You can even cobble a mentor together out of a half-dozen different people—the friend who gives you her honest feedback, the boss you try to emulate, the coworker who’s always so sharply insightful. A mentor shouldn’t be a status symbol by which you prove to the world you’re worthy. A mentor is someone you can learn from, and the best news I can give you is that those people are everywhere.
You better get used to people thinking you suck.
You will be surprised how many people don’t like what you do! And that’s if you’re really, really, really good at it. Look at what’s happening to poor Mozart on some of the nation’s most popular internet forums:
And that’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! Do you think you’re better at what you do than Mozart was at composing music?
Realizing that some people will hate what you do no matter how good you are is liberating. First, it means you don’t need to take every negative reaction so personally. You’re not everyone’s cup of tea! But second—and this is probably more important—it means you’re required to use a little discernment when fielding criticism. If you can learn whose critique you can trust, you’ll have a real shot at getting good.
Because in a lot of ways, you’re on your own. Nobody’s going to make you practice every day, and even the best mentor is eventually going to expect you to leave the nest and fly.
But if you love it enough—whatever it is—to practice every day, to be a student of your craft, and to accept criticism, then yes, even you, Richard Russo, stand a pretty fair chance of getting pretty good.
It’s free at the library. You have nothing to lose.
But what of the crocodile of arrogance? Well, if you knew anything, you’d know that caimans are actually native to the Amazon, not crocodiles. Stay in school, kid.
Which they aren’t!
I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not going to make another joke about Richard Russo. I didn’t even know he’d won the Pulitzer, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be so consumed by jealousy that I’d just go on and on making jokes about him as a balm unto my bitter little heart.
That was an honest question. I’m soooo sorry if it sounded sarcastic.