I Want to Start Treating My Creative Goals Like Fitness Goals

Photo by Poodar Chu.

I recently read two things that have really given me pause on how I might approach self-improvement in my creative and professional work.

First up, a 99U article about Joshua Foer's research on expertise and the "OK Plateau":

We hit what Foer calls the “OK Plateau,” where we have gained sufficient skills for our needs; at which point, we stop pushing ourselves. But experts – those who excel beyond all others in their fields – do it differently.

Foer identified four principles that he saw the experts using to remain alert and to keep learning:

1. Experts tend to operate outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing.
2. Experts will try to walk in the shoes of someone who’s more competent than them.
3. Experts crave and thrive on immediate and constant feedback.
4. Experts treat what they do like a science. They collect data, they analyze data, they create theories, and they test them.

The article identifies a few outliers who are able to do this for themselves, holding themselves accountable for their training, analyzing their work and that of others, and constantly pushing themselves to improve, but really, for most of us, this is crazy hard. Not only is it hard to be honest with yourself about your mistakes and hold yourself accountable, but depending on what kind of work you do it might be impossible to monitor your work anyways. You are in the thick of it and can't even begin to see the forest through the trees. How are you supposed to see what you're doing or how you're doing it?

This is where Foer recommends bringing in a coach, using the example of a surgeon who had someone watch them work and provide feedback on how they could be better. If top athletes still need coaches, after all, then why not the rest of us?

Okay, pause there for a second. Now let's consider this tweet from Jocelyn K. Glei (pssst, I just realized that she also wrote the OK Plateau article, so this combo is no coincidence):

My first thought when reading this tweet was to be suuuuper jealous that she has the kind of life where she can commit three hours a day to writing. How awesome! I want that life! Then I started thinking of ways I could do this (or at least something similar) in my own life.

Then I started pondering the connections between this tweet and the article.

Both tie in athletic excellence to other forms of excellence. Both beg some questions: why is it so much easier and more natural to get a personal trainer than a mentor? Why do we fully accept work out regimens but struggle to put together or share our creative regimens? Why is it completely normal to share fitness progress but not creative or professional progress? Not just the big milestones, but the little improvements along the way?

In athletic training, you set a goal, you make a plan to achieve that goal, and you use whatever outside help is available to you. It is commonly accepted that, if you are serious about a physical goal, you will hire a coach or trainer, take classes, repeat the same exercises over and over until they are rote, and sacrifice other activities to get there. You will push beyond just being able to do a thing until you have mastered it, and then move on to the next element.

So how can we incorporate that philosophy into whatever other work we want to do? Maybe not to that extreme - we don't all need to become experts at everything - but to whatever our end goal is. And even if we aren't sure yet what exactly that goal might be, we can still start to move in the general direction, just like you can start trying to get in better shape even if you don't have a firm notion of what you are aiming for in the long run. A lot can be worked out once you start moving.

So what would your creative or professional regimen be? Can you find a coach to help you get there?

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