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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

From Close Enough to Excellence Through Failure

Clip Art Graphic of aIn answer to the questions raised in the previous post, you move from close enough to excellence with discerning, observant practice where you change what you do based on the results you get.

Indiscriminate practice only reinforces what’s already there. There’s no point in polishing and repeating mistakes. Make your mistakes new ones.

Recognizing failure is how you discern what’s working and what’s not. You can get upset about failing and start believing horrible things about yourself. Or you can use the failure to show you what you need to do better.

My Missed Chance

For example, in the video of Blue and I running Chances, Blue is supposed to the go through three tunnels in a row (in my revised “good enough” course).

Blue didn’t go through the second to the last tunnel, which tells me I did something unintended. When I watch the video, I see that I dropped my arm slightly just before Blue got to the second to the last tunnel.

That little movement told Blue to pull away from that tunnel. It’s a very subtle movement that lasts maybe a second or two, but it’s the dogs’ extreme sensitivity and awareness of every small movement of their handlers that makes a correctly performed agility run a thing of amazing beauty and grace.

The failure – that Blue didn’t do what I expected and what thought I had told her to do – told me to look more closely at what I did. Without the video, I’d never know what to improve through practice.

Are Your Failures Visible?

If what you’re doing to cause the writing results you don’t like (i.e. your failures) is visible and/or audible, video might help you see it. If your writing failures are the result of what’s going on in your brain, video won’t help, but self-reflection might.

When you’re not getting the results you want, consider what you were thinking and what core beliefs cause you to think that way.

witness thoughtsFor example, if what you’re doing is postponing Product Time day after day, consider what thoughts you entertained just before and during the time you had planned to show up.

Maybe you thought “I just check my email before I get into my writing.” Or maybe the phone rang and you answered it without consciously thinking about it. Or maybe you thought “So-and-so is waiting for me to finish this other thing,” so you focused on that instead of your writing.

When you identify your thoughts, consider what beliefs triggered those thoughts. Maybe you believe your writing is less important than the other project. Maybe you believe that what you want is less important than what someone else wants. Or maybe you value promptness and believe that responding to email within an hour or two is a sign of respect.

If you can’t remember what you were thinking, give it your best guess. And start keeping a journal of your thoughts about writing.

Another Pair of Eyes

Another way to recognize what you need to change is to invite another person’s perspective.

I’m lucky to have a great agility instructor who notices details few others can see. When I’m confused why Blue is doing something in class, Annelise will say “Look at your feet” or “You dropped your shoulder.” That information allows me to consciously focus on what I had been unconsciously doing wrong.

The key is to invite the perspective of someone who’s skilled at recognizing what you’re missing. In other words, get feedback from a talented observer.

The reason so much feedback is useless (or worse) is because the people offering the feedback don’t know what to call our attention to or how to call our attention to it. When Annelise tells me to look at my feet, I trust the position of my feet really is part of the problem.

Make sure you’re listening to someone who can help you see what you’re doing that causing the failure (i.e. undesired result), not someone who makes you feel that you are a failure and doesn’t give you a valid clue about what to change to get different results.

Make sure the people you invite to observe you ask questions that give you insight and direction, not make you question yourself.

Who has the talent to observe your writing practices?

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One Comment on “From Close Enough to Excellence Through Failure”

  1. Joel D Canfield September 18, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    Exactly the question I was asking myself.

    I’ll need to ponder that.

    I lost the best mentor I ever had and it definitely affected my work and my writing. It’s not something I can force. I’m incredibly difficult to deal with when it comes to my art, and most people don’t have the patience and strength to wrestle a steamroller to the ground.


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