Note to Self: Make Time

Fluffy gray kitten on the black and white keys of a piano.

Yo, self. Listen up.

Whatever the activity, if you want to get better at doing it, you have to make time regularly and do the thing. This applies to everything from cooking and archery to maille, writing, and art. I hear it applies to golf, but that shit still looks like equal parts luck and magic to me.

I hate making time. Unless your passion is a team sport, it can be a pretty solo act. Making time means being surrounded by social creatures who want a share of your time and saying “Sorry, I need to be alone right now to Do The Thing.” It’s giving up other activities because the thing you want to get better at requires more than an hour of your time.

Making time also requires that you get used to sucking on a regular basis. We don’t practice to remind ourselves that we’re brilliant at it. We practice because our failures are part of how we try new approaches, test theories, and perfect our craft. So great, on top of telling your significant other that you’ll be going to your studio at least three hours a week to paint, you have no guarantees that you’ll produce anything of quality in those hours. In fact, it’s highly likely that you won’t.

But you have to do it.

Not Doing The Thing will leave you at a point of stagnation. As a piano student of nine years, I’ve got a bitter shot of truth for you: there’s no guarantee your studio hours this week will make you ‘better.’ At least not in the quantifiable, justifying-this-to-my-spouse kind of way. But if you don’t go at all, the odds of improvement went to nil.

And if you do go, this week, next week, the week after and beyond – you absolutely will get better.

I Should…

  1. Not blame others when I don’t Do The Thing.
    Your significant other, your children, your pets are not responsible for you Doing The Thing. They aren’t responsible for getting out of your way or facilitating your space. If you didn’t Do The Thing today, it’s not their fault – don’t take it out on them.
  2. Start small.
    If you’re struggling to carve out that hour, try fifteen minutes instead. Hell, try five. Make sure you figure in your travel time, if you have to go somewhere else to practice. If you can fit in this much time, add another five, ten, fifteen minutes. If that works, add more. If not, do what you can. Feel accomplished for the work that you did do.
  3. Set a pattern and keep it.
    Do The Thing at as regular a time as you can. This will help your creativity to come when you whistle, but it also gives you a set time to mark as ‘yours,’ and schedule around.
  4. Learn how to say no.
    Time is the sacrifice you make for your passion. That may mean you can’t see the movie on premier night, can’t do that day trip this weekend, or have to say no to an impromptu drink with friends. Ultimately, the decision to say no is about your commitment to your craft. Remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty about occasionally saying no.
  5. Manage my time better.
    Unless you’ve wrestled that Time Turner away from Hermione Granger, there’s no way to magically add time to your day. You have a job, familial obligations, self care requirements to fulfill. Those things you may not have any control over. But when you have free time, manage it wisely. Sometimes, you’re going to walk six blocks chasing Pokemon. You totally should, it’s fun! But consider how much time you spend checking social media accounts. How many hours you blow feeding your herd of digital horses. How much time can you invest somewhere else?
  6. Learn how to say yes.
    When you’re not Doing The Thing, then commit 100% to Not Doing The Thing. It’s okay to binge three episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s okay to spend two hours playing Alpha Bear or Bubble Shooter. It’s okay to have dinner with your aunt, bake cookies with your spouse, go see a movie and not Do The Thing. Guilt and anxiety about not Doing The Thing will keep you from relaxing and fully enjoying what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you need downtime. You’ll come back fresh to Do The Thing another time.
  7. Practice ‘smart,’ not ‘hard.’
    An old adage from my piano teacher. Much of learning music can be simplified into recognizing patterns and chord structures, rather than reading every note on the staff. Once I understood the patterns, I could often intuit where the harmony would go next. What constitutes ‘smart’ practice is different for every discipline, but boils down to this: develop good habits that work for you. Read up on how folks in your discipline hone the craft. Figure out what learning style you connect with the most. What slows you down when you sit down to practice? Can you approach that another way?

Good luck, buddy. We’re in this together. I know you can do it.


Graphic Design Was Not My #LifeGoal

Image of a well used chalkboard with the words "Don't give up!!!" written on it in white chalk, in script lettering.

At seventeen, the future terrified me.

Artsy, sheltered, rural Mid-American me was not ambitious. I didn’t have Big Plans for my life. I knew I was going to college because that’s just what you did after high school in 2001, if you expect to make any kind of living. As a kid I’d run the gamut of Dream Jobs, from ballerina to fireman, marine biologist to zookeeper. I had a bent towards creative hobbies; I wrote, I read, I sketched; I painted ceramic ornaments from Wal*Mart with Aleene’s Acrylic Paint (Great stuff, long gone. Sigh.) By the time I walked up to shake hands and get my diploma, I had some rough ideas about being a journalist. Maybe? Sort of? Honestly the thought of asking strangers questions for a living tied my stomach up in knots. But my little moral compass (and motivation from a favorite teacher) was ticking towards using my words for good and not evil.

Well, less for evil, anyway.

I went to community college for my first two years. The counselor – bless him – wasn’t super sure what to do with me. I was a teacher’s pet! I would be A+ perfect because that’s what I do! Just tell me where I’m supposed to go and I’ll go do whatever in the most kickass way possible! Just tell me what to do!

I needed to figure out what to do for the rest of my life so I didn’t, you know, waste my entire education and end up destitute. Because really, when you’re seventeen and sheltered and the Internet is mostly a place to check your Hotmail, that’s all you know. You know you have to do this College Thing correctly or risk destroying the rest of your life. (News flash: going to college for something other than what you end up doing won’t ruin your life. Although crushing student debt is another story. But I digress.)

I was pretty sure I couldn’t sketch unicorns for a living (although someone probably is, and doing fabulously) but a journalism career still made me want to puke from fear.

I took the basics for an Associate of Sciences degree, dug into Statistics and Music Appreciation, US History, World Civilization and College Spanish I, and tried to pretend for a year that I knew what I was doing.

The next meeting with my counselor, however, was a little less frightening. “You’re transferring to Western Illinois University after you graduate here, right?”

“Yep!” Hopefully the panicked light in my eyes just looked, um, perky.

College Counselor scanned my credit hours. “There’s a brand new major up there called Graphic Communications. I think you might consider it.”

Me, just glad to have someone tell me to do a thing, while having no idea what ‘Graphic Communications’ meant: “Okay!”

We bumped journalism to a minor, restructured my classes to fit WIU’s Graphic Communication major, and off I went for my sophomore year. By the time I transferred, I had an AS, a vague idea of what jobs might be out there, and hope.

I picked up my textbooks for my first semester. One of them was Photoshop Down and Dirty Tricks by Scott Kelby.

I went through all the tutorials in a week. Before class started.

I couldn’t stop. Typically, I struggle to maintain the patience to acquire and improve a new skill. Yet here I was, hungrily soaking up drop shadows and pillow emboss and outer glow and layer effects and gradient overlays. Something in my brain clicked to this wizardry. I was gonna be the muthafuckin Gandalf of Photoshop.

When classes began, the work got significantly harder. I loved it. It was one of the few times I’d encountered an activity that lit me up. Graphic design makes my soul sing, in the way very little else does. We designed logos, recreated tax forms, screen printed tee shirts; made calendars, newsletters, and notepads.

I knew what a corporate identity was. I was the new queen of consistency.

Up until my junior year of college, school was the thing I went at with the intent to make other folks happy. My professors, my parents, my extended family – I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and back then I shoved myself into the expectations of every single person I valued. Was there anything else? I wasn’t ambitious. I didn’t have strong dreams of the future.

My story of college education is not a checklist for success. I was supremely lucky, to land in a career path that worked so well for me by utter accident.

Graphic design was not my #lifegoal. But although I fell into it by accident, it opened up the concept of loving my job; striving to improve at things I feel passionate about. It showed me that I was allowed to have life goals in the first place.

I mean, I’m still not an ambitious person. But I’ve learned how to direct my own life.

Still not Photoshop Gandalf, though. Working on that.