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How to Do Something You Don’t Know How to Do

Posted by on December 23, 2011

I often find myself in a position of trying to figure out how to do something I don’t know how to do. Sometimes my financial security rides on it and sometimes I’m trying to fulfill a dream or enrich myself. For example, over the years I’ve been figuring out how to do the following things: teach dance, become a touring dance instructor, learn a new instrument, create successful events, write a novel, run my own business, build websites & optimize search engine rankings.

Right now my big struggle is over writing a novel. I’ve embarked on two previous novels and have about 25,000 words written of each. (They’re both about the same story, but approached from different perspectives.) At the house where I’m staying, I came across a book called “The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing” and what I really like about it is that it has articles by actual published novelists YOU’VE HEARD OF that are brief but contain useful nuggets about how to make a novel work.

I realized that my “dive in and hammer out 50,000 words” a la NaNoWriMo wasn’t really going to work anymore because I have some fundamental problems with how I treat my plot and characters, which causes my stories to die an early death. Personally, I’m a big fan of the “dive in and hammer it out” approach, because it’s the only way to fully immerse yourself in failure and success. You can’t dance around the issue (ha ha); you have to try and fail before you can succeed.

But, on this third try, I’m grateful that I came across this book because it enlightened me to the fact that I keep making the same mistakes and that there are lots of different ways to solve the problem. Perhaps I would have ultimately come to these solutions on my own, but sometimes shortcuts are helpful.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to doing something you don’t know how to do is just try. But beyond that, here are some things that have helped me learn new skillz.

There’s No One Right Way
There is no one right way to do anything. Heck, if you’re a math-phobe like, me, you might have gotten through school by learning shortcuts to solving algebra problems, rather than doing it long-hand. There are preferred ways, there are recommended ways, and then there’s the way that you do it. Try a variety of different approaches and don’t get hung up on doing things “in order.” That could take you years.

Start small
Pick something that’s manageable. Forming a corporation from nothing and looking for seed-funding is bound to present you with more failure than success. Create a business-like entity (yourself, and some goods or services) and see what the demand is like. Build it incrementally rather than trying to LAUNCH into outer space. Finding a way to incorporate your new skill or obsession or business into every day is easier than overhauling your whole life and diving into a huge project.

Novel writing is a lofty endeavor. Experimenting with short stories, creative letters, essays and blog posts can help you get your writing chops up while you contemplate your novel’s plot and theme.

Do something you care about. 
If you don’t obsess over it, you’ll never get through the failure.

Find a mentor
Make contact with a mentor and touch base with them only when you’ve exhausted your possibilities. Don’t confuse a mentor with a teacher. Don’t ask them to lead you by the hand through the process.

I often find myself composing an email with a question to one of my mentors only to find myself re-writing it to include all the steps I’ve gone through, so they can give me a more precise response. The very act of thinking through this process invariably causes me to stop writing the email, consider another option and find the solution for myself. Only once my new problem solving routes are exhausted, then I send the email or make the call.

Your mentor will appreciate your willingness to do the homework first and they’re more likely to give you their time if they see that you’re not asking them to do all the work for you. And then you might just get your hands on some pretty useful nuggets.

Keep sources of inspiration nearby 
Dance videos, my favorite short stories, links to beautiful websites, playlists of my favorite drummers – these are all things that have inspired me and given me new ideas. Whether you’re trying to live up to something, or improve on something, giving yourself time to “fill the well” with ideas is a valid way to spend your creative time.

Cut off your sources of inspiration when it’s time to get down to work
Don’t get hung up on watching videos and listening to records. Focusing too much on your source of inspiration may cause you to over-edit if you don’t look or sound like your idol. Just use them as a jumping off point.

When I’m blogging or writing or dancing, I only engage with my inspiration sources as long as it takes to get a new idea. Once I get an idea, I shut off the source and get to work. Spending the time actually honing your new skill is the hard part, but it’s also the rewarding part. Being too close to someone else’s art can cause you to imitate rather than create.

Don’t pay to go to school
By “go to school” I’m talking about a program that you pre-pay for that promises you certification or accreditation at the end of it. There are a very small number of jobs that you actually need to go to school for, such as medicine, law and a few trades that require at the very least an apprenticeship with a master, like electrical work or plumbing. The rest of them can be learned on your own, under supervision from a master, or on the fly.

This doesn’t mean you can’t pay for a specific class at a university, or take adult continuing education courses. Taking private classes from experts who provide clear descriptions of what they’re covering is a way to learn specific skills that you know you want to learn. But paid programs often force you through a lot of re-requisites and requirements that waste your time. If you’re already an adult, you probably don’t have time to waste.

Don’t spend too much time on education
There are so many “non-school” options, books, videos, private lessons. You can have the inspiration educated right out of you. It’s fine to learn the rules, but you don’t have to learn them all FIRST. Look at how children learn, by trial and error. No little kid is going to sit through a power-point presentation on how to walk and neither are you. Get up and try it. Failure strengthens your muscles and builds resolve.

I’ve been to dance classes with people who only go to dance classes. It’s like they’re waiting to become great dancers before they go to the dance party. Well guess what? If you’re at the dance party, you’re getting better faster. As you work on your new skill, you can learn the rules, either through experience, or from an expert when you really need help. Plus, the rules will make so much more sense when you’ve already had some experience with your new skill.

Count failure as part of your success
Babe Ruth had 714 home runs at the end of his baseball carrerr, but did you know that he also had 1,330 strike-outs? I have a friend who went on 500 first dates. At the time that he was getting these dates, he also had a goal to get 100 rejections. Before he developed these two goals, he had a really hard time asking women out. But once he had something to count, no matter what happened, when he flirted with a woman, if she rejected him, he got a point and if she went on a date, then he got to go on a date and see how that worked out. I would say, that he’s one of my favorite people in the world to talk to because he is now an expert in human interaction, having done so much more of it than most people I know.

Remember that art is a process, not a product
Dance, music, writing, most of these things are ephemeral. I’ve written thousands and thousands of pages in my lifetime and none of them will ever see the light of day (at least I sure as hell hope they won’t). The hours you spend playing music and dancing can’t and shouldn’t be captured. Who would want to consume all that? Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” Remember that only some moments (hopefully the best) get turned into a product that others can enjoy. But your art is all of the time you spend honing your skills. It’s every day of your life.

Make your life your art
Which leads to my final rule. Make your life your art. Whether you are a painter or an entrepreneur, there are clumsy ways and elegant ways to solve every problem. Make the process as important as the product so that you’re succeeding every day, and not just when you’re playing a live show or selling a thousand units of your invention.

Your skill and talent is an accumulation of all the time, research, energy and love you put into it. If you don’t enjoy that process, it’s not the skill for you to learn.

One Response to How to Do Something You Don’t Know How to Do

  1. Stephen York

    I’ve noticed that, even with the majority of intelligent engineers I’ve worked with, the first reaction to “I don’t know how to do this” is “I can’t do this”. Some days I feel like the only reason I have a job is because I’m one of the few willing to RTFM. I’m glad to see someone write about the value of having a good process.

    It also reminds me how sad I am about the state of art education in the public school system (which is what I went through). Not once did it conceptually get beyond kindergarten finger painting. It wasn’t until I took theater courses taught by professionals that I was ever introduced to the idea of art as an introspective process, and now I don’t know how I could live without that. I wish more people were shown that younger, maybe we’d have less conflicted and unsatisfied people running around.

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