The promises of this world are, for the most part, vain phantoms; and to confide in one’s self, and become something of worth and value is the best and safest course. – Michelangelo
When you know how to do something you start to forget that it was once difficult.
Take reading, for example.
How often do you stop and take a minute to think about what you’re actually doing right now?
How your brain is taking shapes made from light, descended from charcoal on stone walls?
How it turns them into meaning – putting together squiggles in combinations that spell out words and sentences and phrases and help you read someone else’s mind.
If you have children you can see their attempts to get to grips with this astoundingly complex activity.
If you’re unsympathetic or have forgotten what it’s like to start something right from the beginning – you might wonder why they have a problem at all.
But if you’re wise you’ll watch them closely, picking up clues about how you can plan your next learning experiment.
Reading and writing seem easy in comparison to other tasks – but that’s just because we’ve been doing them for a long time.
When we set out to learn something new we start by examining the components of that thing.
Take baking a cake, for example.
I’m not a good baker – I don’t have the patience to follow recipes.
I find that if I throw a bunch of ingredients into a mixer and blend until the resulting mix seems about the right consistency – then something edible sometimes emerges.
Two out of three times, perhaps.
I’m thinking particularly of a banana cake experiment and a spinach based chocolate cake.
My last attempt at creating a flapjack resulted in what tasted like soggy bricks of cold porridge.
And the point I am making, I suppose, is that gaining mastery over the components of a thing matters if you want to do it as a job or profession or business.
I used to think that the thing that differentiates a professional from an amatuer was money – the act of being paid.
But I think actually the thing that makes the difference is the mindset of the person – are they trying to do this once or twice – or just when they need to?
Or are they trying to do it again and again – getting better each time and trying to learn everything they can about wha they do?
You might think of the professions – doctors and lawyers and so on.
But the best doctors and lawyers will spend their time reading and learning about their field.
Others will spend their lives prescribing based on what they have learned so far.
While both are called professionals – only some of them act like professionals.
I was in London the other day and had some time to kill so I wandered over to the treasures room in the British Museum.
There you are confronted with the messy reality of how people once worked.
The piece of paper where Wordsworth wrote out the lines to “I wandered lonely as a cloud” next to the Beatles collection – who appeared to write their lyrics with crayons on brown paper.
If you look at the physical artifact it looks like something anyone could do – something you and I could do.
But we don’t.
And we would be wise to see those marks – marks that we could make – and see how they emerge from a lifetime of work and practice hidden from view.
The point I’m trying to make is this.
A lot of people can read and write – they’ve mastered the components and put them together and can create useful things – emails and documents.
But if you want to be exceptional you have to learn and put together components in a way that other people don’t.
Cartoonists, for example, combine skills with page layout, script writing, fine art and colour to create something that many people would see as simple, maybe even childish.
But could you create one?
Could you bake a multi-layer cake with a topping and frosting?
I can’t even draw one properly…
But if you knew how to create the components of a normal cake and then you were able to add your spin and twist and design ideas – you might create something that stands out – something that has value for others.
A lot of people think that value is something you have or that you give in exchange for money.
Perhaps we should think of value as something that emerges from how you put together the underlying components.
My one layer banana cake has value – my children will eat it to get sugar fix.
But given a choice they’ll pick the one made by a baker who knows what he or she is doing.
So perhaps if you want to get into the business of creating value – you first need to understand what you need to do to be a professional.
And then get busy working.