Learning to be Intentionally Incompetent
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
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Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.
My kids are back in college and my teacher friends are preparing their classrooms for another year of learning. There is always anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a full school year dedicated to learning something new.
As a teacher creating a curriculum, I try to include as many different ways to convey understanding as possible. This means I have to learn my material so thoroughly that I can explain it clearly in many different ways. This is why teaching is also one of the best ways to learn. I am fortunate to teach art because in art there are no right or wrong answers. An artist is in a constant process of self-discovery, interpretation, experimentation, and solution-seeking. As adults, this means we are often required to teach ourselves.
Each of us is unique in the way we take in new information. There is no right or wrong way to learn. Do you know your learning style? Are you a visual, auditory, emotional, or kinesthetic (movement) learner? Are you motivated by grades or achievement outcomes? Are you a lifelong learner? Do you enjoy the process of learning?
Do you have a preference for the way new information is transmitted to you? Do you prefer to learn in a group, or alone from a book or video? Do you take notes or do you prefer an experience that touches your heart? Do you spend hours researching health concerns on Google? Do lectures put you to sleep or stimulate your imagination? When other people question and finally grasp a topic does it activate understanding for you too? Do you learn best from experimentation, failure, or observation?
The one constant to learning regardless of your learning style or your subject matter is the discomfort of work and practice.
Who could you be? What could you accomplish if you could get comfortable with being uncomfortable? Sometimes what we know gets in the way of what we need to learn and we get set in our ways, complacent and stale.
Vitality and vigor require us to stretch and take action on our green, growing edges. Yet I find it harder and harder to leave my zones of expertise and venture into those areas where I am clueless and clumsy. Aging is a convenient reason for not pushing myself, but is it a legitimate excuse?
Initial findings from a long-term study, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, found that a lifelong career in academia can also have a positive effect on brain health.1 . This study indicates that by keeping our minds active and engaged, we are less likely to have degeneration in older age. Psychiatrist, Julian Lagoy puts it this way "The more you use your brain, the more oxygen it requires, and your body increases blood flow to it to fulfill the higher demand. This is what keeps it healthy and active and benefits brain health...It's similar to how cardio exercise every day helps benefit the health of your heart. It’s just like working out your other muscles, he explains: "The more you keep the mind engaged the healthier you are for it, whereas if you don't use it regularly, it is more likely to atrophy."
For about a year I’ve been hearing a call to transform my watercolor painting style. I follow some painters on Instagram whose work takes my breath away. Some of their pieces give me full-on goosebumps and a rush of green envy. Strong emotions like these are a sure sign that I have found the next turn, the next obsession, on my painting journey.
Refusal of the Call:
For months I looked at their work as something beyond my capabilities. Sort of like the art I admire in museums yet I know I will never dedicate myself to learning. But there is something about this flowing watery style that feels enticing to me. Why couldn’t I learn to paint that way? What is it that holds me back from even trying?
In June I decided to pay attention and take action. I made a commitment to spend the next 12 months on a Hero’s Journey to see if I can learn this very wet watercolor style I love, in a way that is unique and personal to me.
I am adopting the stages of the Hero’s Journey as a metaphor to help me stay engaged with what I know will be a long and arduous process that will bring me new relationships and new adventures as well as the artistic transformation I seek as the final prize.
Meeting the Mentor:
As a coach myself, I know how hard it can be to find the right guidance. It is important to find someone who has mastered the skill you want to learn and is willing to work with you. When you reach a high level of performance those experts are even harder to find. I am pretty good at teaching myself from books, but in this case, I know I am going to need assistance.
Throughout this newsletter, I included examples from my favorite artists: Sabrina Garrasi, Endre Penovac, Antonio Ortega Perez, Barbara Nechis, Lois Davidson, Jean Haines, Yutaka Murakami, Kari McGowan, and Keith Nash.
My path would be much easier if these artists I admire offered workshops where I could go and watch them paint and ask a million questions but just like on the “Hero’s Journey” obstacles abound.
In July I started doing research on my favorite artists to see if any of them have books, videos, or workshops coming up in the near future. I came to realize that almost no one in the USA is using or teaching the style of watercolor I would like to learn. I could only find two North American artists doing similar work, Barbara Nechis and Linda Kemp. Both are now mostly retired, but they put me on their mailing lists and will let me know if they are creating any workshops in 2024. I ordered their books and I will be working through them on my own.
Crossing the Threshold:
Spanish artist Antonio Ortega Perez has become my first mentor. Although he does not speak English or offer workshops, I was able to download a dozen of his artworks onto my phone to study and then I signed up for the three short instruction videos he offers in Spanish and started to paint. The advantage of learning from a video is that you can stop and start as often as you want. You can repeat any section and paint alongside the artist, pause to catch up and double-check your understanding. Since he speaks only Spanish I got to learn some new words like “salpicar” (splatter) and arbol (tree).
Trial and First Failure:
If the month of August were a film I would title it “Embracing the Suck”. My daily discipline has been to create two paintings a day based on Antonio’s work. I can’t even begin to express how hard it has been to force myself to do something I normally love. What a revelation this has been for me! I really hate being bad at something I normally do very well... To be completely transparent, I really don’t like being bad at anything. Do you?
Your internal voice can be your greatest strength or your worst enemy. Fortunately, I have been working really hard to develop an inner voice that supports me instead of undermining my efforts. An encouraging inner voice is the greatest gift you can give your kids. Your internal dialogue, your ego, begins speaking as early as 5 years old but really gets going at around 4th grade. This inner voice, your ego, repeats the language you grew up hearing. Many of us have an inner voice that wants us to quit when the going gets rough or when we start to feel the pain of transformation, or even success.
This internal voice is a function of language and its purpose is to keep us safe. It is not the voice of our highest, truest self. For years I have coached students through this phase of unsatisfactory work and nothing is more rewarding than seeing their faces light up when they accomplish something they didn’t believe they could do. Knowing this is a phase has kept me from giving up, but I can confirm that it hasn’t been fun either.
Here is a story that circulated a few years ago that illustrates the importance of letting go of perfection and instead embracing quantity over quality:
A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that she was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, she said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. Her procedure was simple: on the final day of class she would bring in her bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
In two weeks I’ve completed about 30 bad paintings. Each painting is a ¼ sheet or smaller and takes about an hour. The stack of ugly paintings is now about a foot tall! The good news is I am starting to see some improvement. I am not nearly ready to create my own versions of Antonio’s work but my copies are not nearly as clumsy as my first attempts and I am kind of proud of one or two of them. I plan to produce 100 of these one-hour attempts before I move on to a larger scale.
Instead of feeling like I am failing I am using these acronyms to redefine my crappy paintings.
FAIL = First Attempt In Learning = Forever Acquiring Important Lessons = Forget About it Loser = Found Another Interesting Lesson.
Meeting Allies and Enemies:
Remember that the minute you take your first step into the life of your dreams, the first to greet you will be fear. Nod. Keep Walking. -Brianna Wiest
Fear stands at the end of my bed to greet me every morning. There is fear of failure, fear of not-enoughness, fear of wasting time, fear of success, fear of wasting money, and procrastination. The desire to quit or run away is universal and it is incredibly helpful to know there are others taking just one more step and deliberately choosing the challenge.
Podcasts are my go-to for encouragement and my ally here is Tim Ferris. I love listening to his interviews with people at the top of their game, while I work on something challenging or frustrating. I find a lot of encouragement in hearing successful people describe their own process for overcoming fear, failure, procrastination, and inertia.
I found Lois Davidson’s YouTube tutorials on how to paint in Antonio Ortega’s style to be very helpful; Loose Urban landscape watercolour painting, watercolor hake inspired by Antonio Ortega Perez
Georgia O’Keeffe is my ally too. Here is my favorite quote & some of her watercolor images.
In a few weeks when I feel a little more comfortable with Antonio Ortega Perez, I am going to move on to work with Linda Kemp. Although she has mostly left behind her wet-in-wet style, she still has some videos and great step-by-step examples in her books for me to follow.
Please reach out to me if you know of other artists painting in this style I might consider for my squad of allies, especially if I might be able to meet with them in person.
I am excited and hopeful to see what opportunities arise over the next few months as I continue this exploration. Perhaps, I will discover an artist living nearby who can “show me the ropes” or maybe someone I know will know someone else who can put me in touch with one of the artists I so desire to emulate.
Growth and New Skills:
The next stop on my Hero’s Journey is Growth and New Skills. This means practice, practice, and more practice.
To become really good at anything, you have to practice and repeat, practice and repeat until the technique becomes intuitive. — Paulo Coelho
Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired. — Martha Graham
Super successful people aren’t the most gifted people in their fields. They just work, study and practice more than the competition. — Jack Canfield
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. — Tim Notke
My daily painting practice is making a difference already. Please give me feedback on my new paintings as they appear and let me know when it is time to call out the next marker on this journey, “First Success”
The remaining stops on the Hero’s Journey are still in front of me:
Grand Trial/ Revelation & Insight, Discarding the Old Self, Accepting the New Role, The Road Back, The Final Challenge, Restoring Order, Taking a New Place
As the coming months unfold I will keep you up to date on my progress in this newsletter. I hope you will be my accountability partner and help me stay true to my path through the inevitable obstacles and distractions I know lie ahead.
If you are interested in taking your art on a Hero’s Journey of your own, I would like to offer my mentorship, guidance, and advice. I am happy to be your ally and to share my insights and knowledge with you.
I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.
With Light and Delight