Monday, June 29, 2020

Is It Worth Telling the Average Story?

Does anyone care to read a story about someone who decides to live a mostly normal life? Would you sit through a movie about a person who had big dreams, but ultimately life squeezed it out of them and they just went along with a dull day-to-day routine? I mean, maybe if the routine started at the very end of the movie, you might watch it. But what if most of the movie was about the uneventful life?

I wonder about this because stories are supposed to be relatable. And what's more relatable than being normal? But for some reason we prefer to hear about the special cases. The ending needs to stand out, or it wasn't worth our time.

And this also makes me think about the vast majority of us who don't have an amazing "dream came true" story to tell. See, for the "dream come true" story to be special, it has to mean most of us don't have one.

So if we take all those people without such a story, how many had big dreams that didn't come true? How would we know, since people don't care to hear those stories? 

Do most people with average stories simply not have big dreams? Or do they just learn to accept reality and stop dreaming? And are a lot of those people privately pretty bummed about the whole thing, but again, who wants to hear it? Do they just keep it to themselves?

I was thinking about this because of a project I didn't complete. Back in December I put a lot of work into an updated Teaching Like an Artist Journal. In my usual way, I was super excited about it. I was actually getting close to finishing it. I planned to do the final touches after a big conference in March, 2020. But that's when schools closed and I got crazy busy helping everyone teach online. 

I returned to the project a couple times, at least in my mind. But teaching seemed so different. I started questioning the value of what I had written. I eventually lost steam and haven't done anything else with it for almost four months now.

I read the introduction that I had written for the new edition and it took on new meaning, considering I didn't finish the book. Here's what I wrote:

There are times the artist considers throwing out the work. You might feel that way as you reflect on the questions [in this journal guide]. I know I did as I wrote them. But if you are reading them now, it means I didn’t give up. And maybe my small example (with the help of a little backstory) can be encouragement you need. 

So the finished book would have been a sign I didn't give up. But I didn't finish the book. Like a million other unfinished projects we could all tell about, I let it sit. Does it mean anything? Not much, if average stories aren't worth much.

As I reflect on this, here's my conclusion for now: We are pulled along by the happy (and special) endings we hear about, because we hope our own stories are not yet finished.

I'll try to get back to that journal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

8 Lessons From the Pros - Master Class Takeaways for Teachers

Last year for Fathers Day I asked my kids for an all access pass to Master Class. You've probably seen the ads for the service. In it's many classes, experts in several areas tell you the secrets of their success. From writers to directors to performers, I was intrigued by so many different topics I had to just get them all.

So I watched several over the past year. I didn't take any careful notes, but it wasn't hard to notice patterns emerging across all the domains. I focused a lot on writing and film making. I sampled a number of music and performance lessons too, but I didn't complete any of those classes. I watched most lessons quickly, usually at 1.5 speed. It's not a great way to learn the details, but it helped me distill the ideas I'll share here.

While these lessons have helped me explore creative pursuits as a hobby, I'm intrigued by how they'll help me be a better learner and educator. For each takeaway below, I included at least one Teaching Like an Artist question for reflection.

Takeaway 1:  There is not a single process that leads to success, but there are principles.

Time and time again the experts, regardless of the field, would argue there's no one way to succeed. They'd describe their creative process, then make it clear that's just what worked for them. When they worked, how they got ideas, how they planned--all those things could change.

But through their lessons and stories, common principles for creative work did show through. Of course, the most principles that emerged are the things I'm listing here.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What essential principles do you follow to ensure you're doing your best work as a teacher?

Takeaway 2:  Find the passion.

Some instructors stated this explicitly. For others it just came out in their lessons. We have to find that thing we are passionate about. When it connects with our hearts, we find the energy to persist. You'll see throughout many other items on the list below, success is standing up again when others would have stayed down.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What is your passion for teaching? As I've asked other times on this blog, what made you originally want to teach? How do (or can) you keep that passion in your mind when everything falls apart around you?

Takeaway 3:  Find the story

As I said, I focused on writing and film making lessons, so obviously story would be a big topic. But story came to the forefront in the documentary, communication and advertising courses too. A powerful, unique story is the key for grabbing attention in our noisy world.

While they didn't always delve into what they meant by storytelling, a big theme was the interplay of desire and conflict. What did the person want (there's that idea of passion again)? What obstacle did the person faced? In powerful real life examples, Robin Roberts summed this up as, "Make your mess your message." (See my past posts about the power of story for how I've related story to learning experiences.)

Teaching Like an Artist:  Clarify you teacher story by considering these questions. What do you want as a teacher? What obstacles have you overcome to succeed it?

Takeaway 4:  Do the work.

A lot of this list focuses on the struggle to keep going, but this one is more about the mundane struggle. It's the battle you win that no one would care to hear about, the work you choose to do daily instead of ignore.

Almost all the lessons touched on it. For writing, the main thing was to set a regular time to write. From music creation to performing magic, it was the routine practice and the hours of searching for the better idea.

Authors would talk about the "marathon of the middle" and how they questioned the value of finishing their work. They emphasized the importance of writing anything, because even bad writing gives you something to edit. Word by word, page by page, they made sure to finish.

It seems so obvious to say you must just do it. Yet it makes all the difference between the dreamers and the people living their dreams.

I have done creative pursuits "on the side" all my life and crossed paths with people who aspire to do the same. It has astounded me over the years how many dreams and good ideas never came to fruition because the people didn't have the discipline to do the real work.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What regular, mundane tasks do you need to do regularly to make sure you become the teacher you dream of being?

Takeaway 5:  Be known for Something

No one said this explicitly in the Master Class lessons I watched, but it was driven home to me. I would find myself skimming bios of the instructors when I didn't recognize their name immediately. I was looking for a work they created that I'd recognize. If I found something, they instantly had credibility.

Furthermore, I loved it when the experts would share how they first got noticed. Dan Brown, for instance, talked about his first couple books that barely sold. But then when he wrote The Da Vinci Code, people knew his name and his previous books sold well too.

I heard a very successful game designer give this advice at the start of his talk once. Be known for something. Ideally it will be something very good, of course, but mostly just be known. Be that person who did the thing people heard about. Even if it's locally, stand out. Build from there.

Teaching Like an Artist:  As a teacher, what are you known for? What could you do that would "put you on the map", either locally, regionally or on a larger scale?

Takeaway 6:  You are your first audience.

I have heard this idea for years from experts in several fields, yet I struggle with it. It feels a little selfish at times, but there must be truth to it. Artists often say they make the work they'd love to see.

So writers write the book they want to read. Musicians play the songs they want to hear. I heard a comedian say he only knows what will make him laugh, so he pictures himself in the audience.

It's easy to get distracted aiming for the target audience, so this advice is one way to simplify the challenge. The beauty is eventually the artist discovers the work which resonated with him or her also resonates with others.

Teaching Like an Artist:  In what ways are you the teacher you always wanted to have? Are there other things you can do to better become that teacher?

Takeaway 7:  Failure happens.

I've had my share of disappointments in my quest to create. It meant a lot to me when I heard some Master Class instructors talk about the ideas that didn't pan out. They talked about their stack of rejection letters. Everyone has them. They are part of that conflict and obstacle that makes for a great story. The trick is to keep moving. Keep holding out hope.

In the victories, we find a story that can help encourage others.

Teaching Like an Artist:  What failures are part of your story? Which past failures can you tell about to help students or colleagues strive for their dreams?

Takeaway 8:  Listen to the problem, not the solution.

Only one or two instructors mentioned this, but it was a powerful insight for me. I think it was Aaron Sorkin who stated it most clearly. He said people will critique your work and tell you how you should have done it. He learned early on to hear the problem they were expressing, not their solution.

After hearing it, it was his job to decide if it actually was a problem and how he would solve it. Essentially the artist is the one with the talent to creatively address the problem. It has to be done in a way only he or she is capable of.

The world is full of armchair artists who love a chance to influence someone else's work. Part of the skill of a real artist will be filtering their comments and skillfully addressing the valid problems they point out.

Teaching Like an Artist:  Almost everyone went to school, so almost everyone thinks they know what teachers should do! We get "input" form too many sources. What filters do you use to sift out the feedback that helps you truly get better at your work?