The 3 Deadly Sins of Learning Any Complex Skill
Did she cry?
I don’t think so. I hope not. But maybe…
At professional powwows these days, copywriters of my generation sometimes entertain younger writers with stories of the old me.
“There was always more red on the page than black when Mark was critiquing my copy.”
“After reading only a single paragraph he’d push my manuscript back at me and say, ‘Start over.’”
“He made my cry.”
I believe these stories about my cruelty are greatly exaggerated. Well, somewhat exaggerated. I certainly I never meant to be unkind. I had a system – first praise (sincerely) and then encourage. And then – if they keep improving – give it to them straight. If they have what it takes, they’ll come back stronger. If not, the universe will find them another profession, one that’s easier on their self-esteem.
Of course they don’t remember the early encouragement. Nor do they remember the hours and hours of tedious time I devoted to their incompetent work. They remember only those sessions when, after they felt they were really getting somewhere, I’d dish them out doses of the truth.
And yes, sometimes I was angry. Mostly not, but sometimes – when I felt they deserved it, when I was actually offended by what they asked me to critique.
Let me explain.
Writing, like silversmithing or architecture or flying an airplane, is a craft. And when any craft is done uniquely and well it rises to the level of art.
Which is to say it has the potential of being important.
Hold that thought.
A person wants to be a writer. Or a silversmith. Or an eye surgeon. What should he aspire to being? Minimally competent? More than that? A master?
Answer: That’s up to him. I – and the rest of the world – we could care less.
But let’s say this person decides he/she wants to master this new craft. How can that be done?
Mastering a craft requires two things:
- Learning specific knowledge, and
- Practicing one or several complex skills.
In the case of writing, that knowledge includes (but is not limited to) grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style.
The skills involved in writing include (but are not limited to) research, writing, editing, and most of all – thinking.*
(* The sort of thinking required for writing is actually a set of types of thinking, each a complex skill in its own right.)
All that learning and practicing takes a lot of time.
How much time?
The Time Requisites of Mastering a Complex Skill
Long before Malcolm Gladwell popularized Anders Ericsson’s idea, I wrote an essay in which I conjectured that it takes about a thousand hours to become competent in a complex skill and five thousand hours to master it. If you are lucky enough to have a master teaching you, I said, that time can be discounted by 20% to 50% – depending on his skill at teaching and your skill at learning.
I put in those hours times three or four by the time I began mentoring junior writers. I had learned to spell and mastered grammar and learned the elements of English prose style. I had also spent thousands of hours researching and writing and revising my writing and tens of thousands more thinking.
I knew my craft. I respected my craft. And I expected any apprentices or journeymen that sought out my help to be respectful too.
Respect means observing certain formal rituals. But it also means doing what the craft requires of you.
And what is that?
It means that when you are still a student and still learning you should follow certain established rules and all do the work needed to become a master practitioner of your craft.
If you want to learn the craft but you aren’t willing to follow rules or put in the time needed to master it, you shouldn’t be surprised if your mentor/teacher gets mad at you.
The Three Deadly Sins of Learning
Let’s talk about it in slightly different terms. How about something biblical?
There are far more than Ten Commandments for writing well, but only three deadly sins: Ignorance. Arrogance. And laziness.
Ignorance is the original sin of any craft. And like the original original sin, it’s how you begin. And it’s not your fault. But overcoming it is nevertheless your responsibility.
As I said, overcoming ignorance of any complex skill requires a lot of (i.e., a thousand hours of) focused learning. That means a thousand hours of learning the basics (grammar, style, punctuation, etc.) and practicing the skills (researching, writing, and thinking).
And as I said, if you have a good teacher and you pay attention to him you can reduce that commitment of time by 20% to 50%.
After you’ve put in that time, you are not done yet. You’ve achieved competence. You are a journeyman. But there are many, many more hours of focused work ahead of you before you can call yourself a master.
But that is okay. The knowledge and the skill will come almost automatically as long as you have a good teacher,
Arrogance is an attitude that is common in smart and talented students. They learn more quickly than their peers. They measure their progress against them and they come to the conclusion that their writing is better than it actually is.
Arrogance is ego born. And like all egoistic notions, it can spur the student into action (and that is a good thing). But unless the student recognizes and vanquishes it, his writing will not improve.
In the world of copywriting, arrogance is cured naturally by failure. The arrogant journeyman must pit his copy against those of masters. The experience of repeatedly coming out short will humble him eventually.
Ignorance… arrogance… I’ve guided (some might say bullied) many new writers through those hurdles.
But laziness – there’s no cure for that.
The writer that refuses to put in the time it takes to research and write good copy is a writer I want nothing to do with. I felt that way then. I still feel that way now.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve mentored only very good and experienced writers. I don’t mentor less advanced writers anymore because, at this point in my life, it’s simply too much tedious work.
Recently, though, I’ve made three exceptions. They are all smart and talented and I have no doubt they can all be masterful one day. But for now, they have to dig in and do the work.
One of them recently gave me some copy to review that had laziness written between almost every line.
I read it. Got upset. Calmed down. And then I wrote her what I thought was a very polite and restrained critique.
I was being, as the old pros like to say, a much softer version of my earlier self.
Almost immediately after sending the critique off, I felt bad about it. Writing in my personal journal that evening, I said this:
But here’s the thing. If she is not challenged on this we can’t expect her to understand what a great career opportunity she is wasting.
I do believe it’s possible to mentor people without beating them up. But everyone has his own level of sensitivity, so as a mentor you can’t be certain you are not making him or her feel hurt. What I do is I ignore that. I try to be encouraging, especially when working with someone who has obvious potential. But unless you drive the criticism home, you are not helping them…
When I woke up the next morning, I still felt bad. But then I began thinking about the writers that like to tell younger writers how tough I was on them. First to mind were MD, FJ, BW, and HP – all of whom went on to become recognized masters in their fields. Then I thought of PM, SP, WM, CJ, and BB – all of whom are not just masters but also multimillionaires.
Of course, my methodology in this was faulty. I was thinking of writers selected from a pool of successful students. What of the others?
What can be said for and about the apprentice copywriters that were lazy and scolded for it and then didn’t succeed?
I don’t know. I don’t remember them.