Ah, wisdom – that wonderful state we each believe we have today but somehow lacked when we were younger. In most cultures wisdom is highly respected. For a creative person, which I consider every one of you, wisdom can be your worst enemy.
Many of you know that I am a Calvin and Hobbes fanatic. Something about a naïve boy and his imaginary tiger unabashedly taking on the wisdom of the world captivates me. Calvin is the heart of many a creative soul.
Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, is a fascinating man. His inspiring life-story of right versus might, retiring early, and holding to his principles is one that I highly recommend reading. One surprising revelation is that Watterson never considered himself an artist, at least in the traditional sense.After retiring from the production of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson felt he needed another artistic outlet.
Since ending the strip, I’ve put my energies into painting and a similarly remedial study of music, but it’s been a humbling experience to go from proficiency and confidence in cartooning to awkwardness and doubt in most everything I do now. On the positive side though, seeing how long it takes to build even the most basic skills, I don’t take my facility on Calvin and Hobbes so much for granted anymore.Bill Watterson
I love the phrase “awkwardness and doubt in most everything I do.” As a creator, I seek daily doses of awkwardness and doubt. As Watterson demonstrated, starting over with something unfamiliar to us is an easy way to do that. Unfortunately, as career-minded individuals we are taught to gain ever advancing skills and proficiency. “There’s no time to start over – I’ve got a career to build!”” Actually, it’s the awkwardness and doubt that advances our skills and proficiency. It just might not feel like it at the time.
Learning something completely new serves two purposes in developing our career. First, we develop what Zen Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” Shoshin is the practice of seeing things with new eyes, much like Calvin sees most of the world. To paraphrase Zen philosophy, in Calvin’s mind there are many possibilities; in his parents’ minds there are few. Possibility is the soil of a creator’s garden.
When we start something new, we typically remove the baggage of expectations. We are so busy wrestling with the unknown that we forget to place expectations on results. Vic Braden, tennis teaching legend, said that there are two times when you play your best tennis – when you break your racquet and have to use somebody else’s, and when you haven’t played in a long time. In both situations you have low expectations, removing a hindrance to your performance. You replace those expectations with a constant awkwardness and doubt. But, those new emotions help you become more alert and receptive to new ideas.
Our confidence can prevent us from seeing things differently. As we become proficient, we feel we need to share our wisdom, transforming ourselves from student to teacher. We talk more than we listen. We try to convince others more than we let them influence us. The Stranded Starfish is a perfect example. I have to force myself to balance the role of influencer with a practice of shoshin. I regularly take up new things that force me to feel awkward and full of doubt. There is a never-ending supply of those things.
The other purpose filled by awkwardness and doubt is to amplify what we are best at doing. Watterson indicated that he gained a new respect for his craft when he saw how long it took to “build even the most basic skills.” Being proficient requires that you have a healthy respect for what you do know and how it differs from those less proficient or not even in the field.
I wish us all a commitment to feeling awkward and a head full of doubt. If you have no artistic skills, buy a drawing journal and do as DaVinci taught – draw something new every day. If you’re not a video game player, download a copy of Need For Speed and see how bad you are at high-speed car chases. There’s a world full of things we are bad at. For your career’s sake, go do them.