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Doing the Work

Image by Norbert Braun on Unsplash

I recently read Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours. When I say read, I mean I diligently read the first three chapters, and when he describes how he learns various things (the rest of the book), I basically skimmed it. I’m not particularly interested in learning the skills Kaufman is interested in, and I don’t have time to read about how he learned to windsurf. I mean, it’s nice, but that's not why I picked up the book. 

I picked up the book because I’m always on the lookout for shortcuts. There are about a gazillion things I want to learn, and this looked like the book that would help me learn them all. I will magically know more stuff in a short amount of time. 

Except, I should have known better. Even Kaufman dares to claim that the way Keanu Reeves learns Kung Fu isn’t “rapid skill acquisition” and, in fact, isn’t realistic. The world doesn’t work like Sci-fi movies, apparently. However, Kaufman does lay out a plan for getting to a decent performance level within roughly twenty hours of diligent practice. This is squarely in the category of “should have been a blog post”, but I also get why people publish books.

Anyway, this book did get me thinking about two things. The first is that for years and years, I’ve been wanting to have a commonplace book and copy quotes into it. I wanted to be the kind of person who memorises quotes and can pull them out when needed. Well, that’s probably not going to happen because my memory sucks (that’s why I have so many notebooks). But, a few months ago, I finally decided to do the work. I got a “one line a day” notebook and started writing quotes in it. At first, I didn’t know what to write in it, but then I realised I always highlight great sentences when I read books, so I started copying those into my notebook. I made a deal with myself: no matter what I think about it now, if I highlighted it, it goes into the notebook. 

Guess what. About three months after I started, my initial writing level elevated. I didn’t even mean for that to happen. But it turns out that all these books and writing gurus are right: you have to do the work. It’s not enough to think about the work or to read about the work. I have to actually do the work.

The second thing this book made me think about was my music.

In the latest round, I’ve been working on my music for the last couple of years. I have a bit of a cycle with music. I work on it for a while, and I get better. Then I get discouraged because I’m not as good as I’d like to be, and then I take a break for a few years until I invariably return to it. A few weeks ago, I realised I’m a baby musician, in the same way that I’m a baby writer (ok, maybe toddler writer). And this realisation made me throw a tantrum (the discouraged part of the cycle, for those who are keeping track). I’ve worked so hard already. Why can’t I be a great musician now? Why is it so much work anyway? Besides, now, with AI music, what’s the point of even trying? I’ll never make music that well. I’ll never be a great musician. 

In the past, that tantrum would have led me to take a break from music. Maybe it would even have made me “realise” that I’m not destined to be a musician and my time is better spent focusing on something else. Now, I’m more experienced and kinder to myself (and I also learned a LOT from raising two young people). I let the tantrum move through me. I moped and gave up on everything because what’s the point. I watched some daytime TV because if there’s no point in doing anything, I may as well. 

And then I got bored and baked. Then I went back to my desk and started working on my music again—because I love the work. And that’s all there is to it.

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