The Arts of Storytelling and Learning

I recently came across an interview with the US radio and TV host Ira Glass.  He was talking about the art of storytelling, and his basic message was this:

hard work, grit and stick-to-it-ness are needed if you are going to create great work.

Not a radical idea, I know.  Especially in the era of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  But Glass introduces another element that I've never seen mentioned in the literature of expert performance, and that is TASTE.

Here is what he says:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit."

This sense of frustration will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to learn something.  Especially something complex.

For example, in the last few years I have tried to learn a number of difficult things including golf, sketching, and Italian. Each of these activities had their own challenges.  My main difficulties with Italian were linked my my apparent inability to hear the differences between many of the sounds and 'phonemes' that made up the language.  In my head I was speaking like a character in a Fellini film, whilst to my teachers I sounded like Phil Mitchell in a pizzeria.  With sketching, I had to learn to overcome my tendency to impose my preconceived ideas rather than what I was observing.  Chairs have four legs; faces have two eyes; those are the facts, whichever way they are facing.

And don't even get me started on golf!

Yet, as expertise theory (and common sense) would predict, the more I did these activities, the better I got, more or less.  And the pace of my improvement seemed ti be strongly associated with the quality of support and feedback I received from my teachers and coachers.

Ira Glass' discussion of storytelling is relevant to those interested in learning and expertise because it hints at a principle behind both practice and feedback: taste, or (if you prefer) AESTHETICS.  In other words, movement towards competence or even expertise in these areas is only possible because the learner and the teacher have their senses of aesthetic judgement - some attempts are better than others; some actions are desirable, not just because of the outcome, but because of an intrinsic value; generally speaking, grace, and fluidity and poise are preferable to their opposites.

Aesthetics are STANDARDS.

It seems to me that taste acts as a powerful motivator for both learners and teachers.  Both are inspired by a sense of the way a skill or technique is supposed to be, and - from time to time - their senses coincide!  If we wish to get better at our chosen activity - if we want to bridge the gap between ability and ambition - we need to be clear that we need to do the work.  There are no short cuts.

It is the responsibility of teachers and coaches to make this clear to the learner from the beginning.  Nothing of value is learned easily.

Glass again:

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So practice and feedback are vital elements in the development of expertise.  But both of these, I suggest, assume a sense of taste or aesthetics.  Practice, if it is for any purpose, must have some ambition.  And feedback is always with reference to a standard of performance or imitation.

Knowing helps explain our frustrations as we learn AND teach, and it helps explain why practice and feedback are so important in the first place.

To finish off, he is a recording of Ira Glass himself talking about storytelling, accompanied by some beautiful typography.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issues raised in this entry.  Criticisms, too!

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.
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