By Vega Subramaniam
It’s All Skill Development
“Of course you’re creative” (or “a leader” or “talented”).
“You just need to change your attitude. Don’t be so negative.”
“You’re too insecure. You should have more self-esteem.”
All things someone who cares about you might say to you.
It’s tempting to get defensive. The fact that you know this person is well-meaning is the only reason you don’t actually snarl at them. Beneath the defensiveness could well lie a hidden bewilderment about just exactly how to accomplish those things. I mean, if all it took was to decide one day to be talented, change our attitude, or have more self-esteem, I’m pretty sure we’d all be doing it.
Everything is a skill.
Here’s the thing. Creativity, positive attitude, self-esteem: they’re all skills, just as much as graphic design, carpentry, winemaking.
And what that means is that even if you don’t have the skill right now, you can break it down and practice it until you learn it. Just like learning to add, ride a bike, tie your shoelaces. At first you might be as awkward and clumsy and tentative as you were when you were learning to add, ride a bike, tie your shoelaces.
But see yourself in your mind’s eye at five years old, earnestly grasping, losing, re-grasping the laces in your tiny growing fingers: the concentration, the curiosity, the willingness to keep trying over and over until you get it. Half the battle is channeling that same energy now.
So what does it mean to learn it?
Learning it could mean that you essentially know the steps, and you just have to practice them.
CoSchedule’s Nathan Ellering recently wrote, “If you want to publish more content, you need to publish more content.” Every writer gives some version of this advice from Anne Rice about becoming a writer: “If you want to be a writer, write. Write and write and write. If you stop, start again.”
Same principle here. To gain confidence, you need to practice gaining confidence. To become creative, you need to practice being creative. To increase … you get the picture.
Take “authenticity.” “Be authentic!” they might say. And you might try. Maybe you share a personal story on Facebook that you’ve never shared before. Or turn off the snark during a sensitive conversation. It’s SO AWKWARD at first. It doesn’t feel natural at all. It’s constant conscious doing.
But like anything else, you continue to “be authentic and be authentic and be authentic,” and eventually it becomes unconscious doing.
But what if you don’t know how to “try”?
Learning it could mean you have to break it down so you even know what the steps are that you need to practice.
It’s possible that right now, you just don’t have the prior set of skills, the scaffolding, that allows you to know what to do to “be authentic.”
When I was young, I used to love ice skating. I should clarify: I used to love to go to the rink and…well, I don’t know what, really. Stand, wobble, flail, something that involved being on ice with skates on. I couldn’t start skating without pushing off the rails. “Just use the force of your own body,” my friend would say, and then helpfully demonstrate. Problem was that there were, I don’t know, 7? a dozen? steps before “propel” that she’d learned so well that she forgot they even existed. They did exist, though, and I had no idea what they were, and was therefore at a loss as to how to execute on her advice.
Looking back, I realize I needed to break it down. Maybe visualize how I self-propel when I start walking. Bring that muscle memory to the rink.
Same with building “authenticity.” I fancy myself to be a generally authentic person now, but it took a lot of learning.
I had to learn and practice the edges of “authenticity.” Did it mean I had to tell everyone everything? Did it mean I had to vomit my entire internal emotional cesspool into each space I was in? Did it mean I had to manifest the exact same “me” at all times, regardless of context or audience?
I had to learn how my “authentic self” with my boss was the same as or different from my “authentic self” with a friend.
I had to get over an almost debilitating fear of rejection.
Likewise, what if you sought ways to figure out the steps for you that come before “be authentic”?
But what if, somewhere inside, you’re just not convinced this is a good thing?
Learning it could mean challenging conflicting beliefs so that you can learn this new thing.
Early on in our relationship, when Mala and I were still figuring out how to fight, I remember being frustrated with her inability to let me know what it was that was upsetting her and what I could do to fix it. I would have been happy to fix whatever it was, if only I knew. On her end, she felt that if she told me what she was expecting, and then I did it, it would somehow be “inauthentic” and therefore disqualified. Long story short, we practiced her telling me what she expected and me doing it, and lo and behold, a mere five years later: authenticity.
Perhaps there are ways that you fundamentally distrust “authenticity,” or whatever trait you’re looking to develop in yourself?
If I’m reluctant to drop my facade on Facebook because I don’t believe there’s a reason to trust people to safeguard me, then the first time some hater hates on one of my posts, I’ll be justified in staying behind a facade.
If I believe that my “authentic self” with my boss should be different from my “authentic self” with a friend, then aren’t I being “inauthentic” all the time, by definition? Aren’t people who claim to be “authentic” just lying to themselves?
What’s the conflicting belief that’s challenging your willingness or ability to practice this new skill?
It takes practice.
It does take practice. There are quotes out there like, “It’s not a mistake to make a mistake, but it is a mistake to make the same mistake twice,” or, “You can’t make the same mistake twice. The second time you make it, it’s a choice.”
Oh please. The fact is that we make the same mistakes over and over again for lots of reasons — including fighting the neural pathways etched in our brains. So if it doesn’t work the first time or the second time or the 10th time, keep trying, breaking it down, and challenging your conflicting beliefs. Like graphic design, carpentry, winemaking, publishing content, writing: if you want to do it, you just need to do it.