As an everyday artist, your brain is the primary implement for making great work. Yet, we often neglect the development of our greatest tool. The beautiful part about the human brain is that, while it is delivered prewired, we can actually rewire it without adding a host of new parts. Instead, using structure and choosing the right activities for when we do the work, we can continually optimize our greatest tool.
In a creative practice, there are really two components to the work: performance and focused practice. Performance is what we’re doing anytime we’re making something for a specific audience, turning out some kind of product to satisfy a need, a client, etc. But there are spaces in between, where we’re not working on a particular project, or our mind needs to turn inward, or the work becomes deeply personal. It’s in these spaces, focused practice provides the greatest benefits. It’s the balance of the two — focused practice and performance — that comprise the practice.
Like a professional athlete, focused practice is about making yourself better at what you do by sharpening foundational skills, learning new skills, or experimenting with new approaches. Like performance, its ultimate goal is to produce some end-product based on a set of established parameters, but the intention of focused practice is not to bring that thing to market. Instead, we’re purely doing the work for the sake of the work. While this may seem like throw-away, adding just a modicum of focused practice to your creative system is essential to your growth. Ultimately, practice combined with performance work will lead you down a path toward ultimate mastery of your craft.
While it’s very easy to purchase a piece of paper certifying your master status, ultimate mastery of an art can only be obtained through the continual struggle to understand it deeply. “Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather,” writes John Gardner.
We ultimately arrive at artistic mastery by doing the work to reveal the “music of the soul” (to borrow Bruce Lee’s words from Tao of Jeet Kune Do). Every action we take should accord with our natural self, our soul, and be a manifestation of the beauty that exists within us. That beauty is revealed through our art and radiates outward into the world through every decision that we make and every action that we take. The aim of art is not the creation of some object or even money or fame, but to continually mine our inner territory to reveal our true humanity. Mastery is obtained when we can share our beautiful inner essence with the world without conscious thought or action.
Artistic mastery then is not a certification, but the ability to connect one’s soul with the exterior world. It is not achieved in a single moment, but can only be obtained through a continual process of disciplined work, balancing focused practice with performance for our craft.
So how can we train your brain and continue the struggle toward ultimate mastery of your craft? What follows are some techniques we can use. This list is imperfect at best. There are likely as many ways to do this work as there are people on the planet. But the few here are offered as thought starters primarily because experience has proven that these are some of the more effective techniques to get deep into your soul.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
I think everybody should journal, keep a diary, a sketchbook, whatever it takes to get acquainted with the thoughts in your head. In the journal, you can write anything you want in any mode you desire. It’s a playground for the mind. It’s your creative space, so feel free to capture ideas, challenge assumptions, and explore topics in any form that you choose. Get a journal with lines or blank sheets. Write, draw, or paste letters from a magazine.
As it turns out, there are many benefits to keeping a journal. The act of journaling reduces stress, allows you to know yourself better, clarify thoughts and feelings, and can even lead to more effective problem solving. While the left side of your brain is occupied with the writing process, the right side is free to create.
To get the most bang out of journaling, it’s best to free write. Free writing — or writing what’s in your stream of consciousness — means adding very few constraints. If you do need a bit of focus, you can add a theme or even a specific topic. Beyond that, don’t add any additional constraints, and certainly don’t worry about grammar or punctuation. In fact, if you can write without editing your work that instant, then do it.
Journaling can also help identify areas for improvement. As you get better acquainted with yourself, you get to know what gives you energy, what feeds yourself, and where you need a little work. Diving deep into those areas in your journal often reveals the actions you can take to improve. This helps to build the growth mindset that you’ll need to flourish.
Do other work that stimulates creative thinking.
Most people have multiple passions. I suspect that this has been the case for as long as man has had a brain. We are composed of many parts and yet we are a single part ourselves. We can harness our multiple interests to enhance our creative thinking. This kind of cross-pollination stretches your brain. By trying out activities, especially other creative activities, you ultimately develop a diverse set of creative problem solving skills that will aid you in everything you do.
For me, I’m a writer, but I also design and code websites. Because this is more of a hobby for me, I don’t sweat it when things don’t work out. Instead, I take things apart, put them back together, and search for ways to solve problems and use the tools to create something unique. At heart, I’m a storytellyer, so I like to find new ways to mash words, images, and multimedia together in a format that flexes depending upon the screen. I then apply what I’ve learned in other areas of my life. Having this hobby creates balance in my creative practice.
Study your field.
One of the best ways to move toward mastery is to study your field. There’s someone who’s been where you are at that moment and has some wisdom to impart. With our seemingly unfettered access to information, you can find books, videos, images, articles, podcasts on just about any subject. Use this information to inform your personal creative practice. Soak it up and write about it in your journal. Talk to people who do the work. Gather their insights. Always bring it back to your journal.
Focus practice on areas of opportunity.
Let’s face it, we can always get better. It’s okay to call these areas weak spots. Like your body, which has its own weak spots, your mind has weak spots that you can bolster through study. Chances are, you know what some of those are right now. Use that list you’ve been keeping in your journal, then spend some time building that muscle.
Put it all together.
Practice your approach to different problems on personal projects that exist for the sole reason of learning something new. When we’re in the moment of making something, especially if that something is tied to our livelihood, it’s difficult to see the challenges with our own personal processes. This is the same reason that athletes review film of their in-game performances. It lends perspective and highlights issues that you can work on in your focused practice sessions. So, spend some time going through the motions and getting a feel for them. Doing this in an environment where you’re not focused on the delivery of a specific product is best. Free of that inhibition, you can assemble the entire process end-to-end and get a feel for how it goes, making adjustments as you go, trying out new approaches. At first, this may feel like wasted time, but with each session and the proper reflection, you get closer to mastery.
And that brings us to flow.
The real goal of practice is to get the subconscious to a place where it works on autopilot, humming along of its own volition. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of mind “flow.” A person enters flow when they’re completely immersed in the task at hand. Their focus is energized, they are fully involved, and they enjoy what they’re doing. It’s the state of ultimate performance variously described as being in the groove, poetry in motion, in the moment, etc.
Practice so that when it comes time to perform, you drop into flow with minimal effort. That’s why it’s important to pull it all together at various times and go through the motions. Ultimately, you want to get to headspace where you can actively work without having to make decisions about what comes next. You’re just in the moment, doing what you know is right so you can reveal the music of your soul.
A creative practice can help you see the world differently and share your unique vision, those treasures inside of you. By training your brain, you overcome the fear, doubt, and anxiety that comes with working in an ambiguous space, freeing you to see the possibility that exists within yourself and bring it into the world.
But a good practice does not come by chance. It’s the result of deliberate choices about how you spend your time each day. You should seek to create simple structure through systems, which will build habits and develop key traits that you’ll need to be successful. Strike a balance between execution and focused practice, selecting activities that force you to think in new and different ways and push your ability to find creative solutions for problems. Your brain, a muscle, will get stronger as a result of the work.
Your creative practice will allow you to grow and live a fulfilling, creative life. As you move toward mastery of your craft, you’ll get closer to your soul, which is revealed through the work. Ultimate mastery is to know yourself and find the core expression of your being through your art. See what’s possible and put aside the fear that often comes from the unknown.
You are an artist; your life is art. Make it beautiful.