There’s three ways to get better at something, and by something I mean any kind of work, art, or skill, anything from drawing to math to football to making friends. Three ways:
Study is reading books about the subject or watching videos.
Instruction is somebody teaching you, imparting their knowledge in some way or critiquing your work.
Reflection is a three-step process:
1) Do the work.
2) Look at the work you did – with honesty. (That last word is the most important.)
3) Apply what you learned and do the work again.
I believe Reflection is the best way to become great at something. I might even venture that most of the truly great artists, scientists, builders, explorers, friend-makers got great via a process of Reflection.
Study and Instruction are similar. They both involve receiving information from the outside. Study is cold, dead information: words on a page or recorded speech in a video. Instruction is warm, live information: an actual person in front of you, observing and interacting with you and your work.
Study and Instruction are both good and useful, in different ways. Study has the advantage of allowing you to move at your own pace, and, because the information is inert, allowing you to react to it as you see fit. By contrast, a live instructor, with an opinion, will continue to push that opinion; but in Study, you can take your time to decide whether you agree with the opinions and instructions you read/watch.
Instruction has the advantage, of course, of being responsive to your specific needs and work. You can have a dialogue with an instructor. The downside is that an instructor will always have an opinion that you will either have to submit to, to a degree, or challenge openly, whereas material being studied doesn’t talk back.
It is, of course, impossible to go through life without being instructed and studying. Our parents and schools Instruct us to walk, read, talk, socialize properly, and stack blocks. Every thing we subsequently read or watch is a kind of Study; no writer can claim to be completely self-made unless they have never read a single word.
All that said – the progress that you can make in any given kind of work via Study or Instruction is always going to be limited. You can only ever reach the heights already achieved by the study material’s authors or the instructor. Thus, any truly great achiever in any line of work will have gotten there by Reflection.
Theoretically, a young person with a paintbrush and a mass of paints can become as great and innovative as Picasso or Van Gogh simply by applying that little three-step process of Reflection to their own work over, and over, and over for years – all they need is the basic-level coordination and simple talent for putting colors onto a canvas. A young person with a trumpet or singing voice can become as great as Miles Davis or Billie Holiday if they simply have that basic musical ear, simply by Reflecting over and over again. A young person can innovate in science as well as Darwin or Curie simply by reflecting.
A person with no memory of what is already known and has already been done, with infinite time and the basic skills, can discover nearly the entire body of human knowledge and art simply by Reflecting constantly.
It’s that honesty that’s the key. And it’s the hardest thing to do. If you can look at your own work – whatever kind of work it may be – and say, “there is the gap between what I am trying to do and what I am actually doing,” and “if I tried that, that might work better,” and “I’ve been doing this in a certain way because I was Instructed to do so, but it’s not really necessary, is it?” – if you can do that, then you will always improve, little bit by little bit. You’ll discover a slightly different brush stroke every time, and build a new mode of art brush stroke by brush stroke. You’ll discover a slightly different way of interacting with a slightly different kind of person that puts them at ease, and wield more charisma every time you go out. You’ll figure out the theory of evolution one thought-step at a time.
That’s why theoretically you can become among the greatest of the great – or at least achieve everything you wish you could achieve – in any line of work simply by Reflecting.
The trick is just to discard your assumptions, to constantly question, and to be honest about your results. The instant you start to hold on to your preconceptions – your pretensions – your beliefs about what you wish your work was, what you’re supposed to do, what people should get out of it, what it is supposed to mean, is the instant that you stagnate and cease to grow. Some 99.99% of the people on this planet, in any and every line of work they take on from gardening to bull-riding, sooner or later do this, and their work molds over.
Study and Instruction are best understood not just as ways to lay a foundation, but to break yourself out of your mold. When you find yourself failing to see what you could do better at the core of your own work, Study, or get an Instructor.
Keep that up, and you can achieve it all. …Eventually.