It’s inevitable. At some point in your professional journey, you’re going to hit the learning plateau.
At first, you fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect. You think you’re better than you are. But once you get past that mile marker, you head directly toward the Dip as defined by Seth Godin—the place where you do not see results, and you can’t decide whether you should quit or keep going.
Once you decide you can’t quit, you’re trapped in no-man’s-land, having traversed the Dip but unable to find success on the horizon. Welcome to the learning plateau, population everybody.
CREATIVITY AND CONSTRAINTS
Growing up in the 1970s, Legos defined my early childhood. Even into my pre-teen years, I would spend countless hours on the living room floor surrounded by mounds of colored plastic.
My friend Brian lived next door. As an only child, he could leave his Lego constructions on the floor, and they would not get stomped upon by devious siblings, so I spent many hours at his house trying to recreate the Millennium Falcon from memory—always an unsuccessful venture.
But I didn’t start that way with Legos. When my parents would buy me a set, I’d start by unfolding the mysteriously foreign directions—the ones with only pictures. I don’t know if Legos still come with this kind of directions as I haven’t bought a set in years. But back then, we’d spread the paper flat and constantly look back and forth between the Legos and the instructions. Sometimes I’d have to twist my head or change angles to get a clue as to where the next block would go.
Once we built the kit, we’d take the object apart, and the blocks would get dumped into the “Lego Box.” The Lego Box was a cardboard shipping container for a microwave or an old TV. It contained the scattered pieces of dozens of sets gifted and purchased over the years.
It felt as if we needed to honor the Lego gods with their intended creations before we felt compelled to make our own.
Those blocks provide constraints on creativity by design. Yes, you have an infinite number of possible block combinations, but they only fit together a certain way—male nub to female hole. You know what I’m talking about.
You can make anything you want within the constraints.
HEMINGWAY AND THE GOOD DOCTOR
Although unsubstantiated, Arthur C. Clarke recounts a story about Ernest Hemingway. While lunching with friends at a restaurant (identified as Luchow’s or The Algonquin), Hemingway bets the table ten dollars each that he can craft an entire story in six words. After the pot is assembled, Hemingway writes, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” on a napkin, passes this around the table and collects his winnings.
Whether it’s true or not isn’t important. Whether Hemingway wrote it or not doesn’t matter.
The story is significant because it’s an extreme example of how creativity can flourish with constraints.
Another example comes from Dr. Seuss. Wikipedia states:
“Green Eggs and Ham is one of Seuss’s ‘Beginner Books’, written with very simple vocabulary for beginning readers. The vocabulary of the text consists of just 50 words and was the result of a bet between Seuss and Bennett Cerf, Dr. Seuss’s publisher, that Seuss (after completing The Cat in the Hat using 236 words) could not complete an entire book without exceeding that limit.”
Constraints foster creativity.
If you have the talent and experience of a Hemingway or Dr. Seuss, you, too, can create constraints to fuel your creativity.
In an article for BigThink.com, Philip Perry looks at how constraints can work in entrepreneurship.
“In entrepreneurship, limitations are naturally imposed. For example, it’s your budget, regulations, competitors, and market forces which must be dealt with. In say aircraft design it can be things the laws of aerodynamics, available materials, budget, fuel, and weight. In the arts however, the blank page or canvas can be daunting as such rules don’t often apply. Because of this, many creatives put artificial limitations on themselves.”
He talks about musicians and artists, too.
“For example, Miles Davis wrote an entire album, Kind of Blue, without a single chord. Artist Piet Mondrian midwifed Modernism by restricting his paintings to right angles and primary colors.”
What kind of self-imposed constraints can you create?
You can change your perspective. Reframe the storytelling device through the lens of the character: change the POV.
If you’ve gotten used to (or good at) writing in the third-person omniscient point of view, try writing in the first person. If you always write in the past tense, try writing in the present tense. Shifting from a comfortable point of view will generate creative tension and force you to work within new constraints.
Maybe you’ve always written stories about love triangles in rural towns. Try writing a story set in deep space about astronauts whose ship is being inevitably drawn toward a black hole. In other words, try a new genre. While there are commercial consequences for authors who genre hop, we’re focusing on craft. And in the same way that you learn about storytelling by reading a diverse collection of stories, you become a better author by writing them as well.
Putting constraints on the physical act of writing can also ignite latent creativity. For example, if you always type your first draft, try handwriting it on legal pads. Or if you’ve handwritten first drafts, try dictating them.
You can take this same approach when it comes to the work you do before writing. If you’re a pantser, try creating a basic outline for your story. If you’re a plotter, try writing the first draft from a blank page.
It’s important to mention that scope is important when it comes to constraining creativity to improve your craft. A novel is a massive commitment in energy and time—it can take months or years to complete and, therefore, might not be the best project to use in this case. But scenes and short stories are the perfect places to experiment with constraint and push beyond the learning plateau.
Even something as simple as a word-count limit can have dramatic effects. Cap the draft at 2,000 words or less for a scene or short story. Agonize over every word, and you’ll be shocked at how much more thoughtful and deliberate your practice will become.
Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian, is often credited for ending a letter with this:
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
His point is that anyone can throw words at a project, but a genuinely magnificent storyteller uses only the minimum number of words necessary.
Now that we’ve created constraints, it’s time for a quick review of the two components essential to pattern recognition and learning.
DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND FEEDBACK LOOP
In my previous article about intuition, I discussed the summary findings of a study conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, who wrote a research paper titled, “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise.”
The idea the researchers proposed is that you get better at defining patterns through experience. The more you do something, the better you will get at it because you will begin to identify trends and themes—patterns.
Because I’ve worked with dozens of clients on thousands of scenes, and because I’ve published more than 2 million words, I’ve learned how to identify patterns in writing. Instead of actively searching for story elements that work or don’t work, I’m “feeling” them intuitively because I’ve done so many repetitions. When I’m writing my scenes, I know what “feels right” because I instinctively know the patterns without thinking about them.
Inexperienced writers, understandably, grapple with this not because they lack talent or ability, but because they lack experience.
When you’re new to the page, a struggling writer trying to figure out how to write a scene, you simply haven’t seen enough manuscripts, or stories, or chapters. There is no pattern for you to detect because you haven’t created enough data points yet.
In the Psychology Today article, writer Al Pittampalli says, “Intuitions come with what Kahneman calls the illusion of validity: a subjective sense, often misleading and dangerous, of truth. Instead, in order to assess the reliability of an intuition, we must evaluate the person who is experiencing the intuition and the environment in which that person operates. We can do this by asking two critical questions.”
1. How Much Quality Practice Have You Had?
2. Is It a High-Validity Environment?
Your practice must be “quality,” which means you need to be using proper form and function. And the way you know if you’re doing so is in a high-validity environment—practicing under the watchful eye of someone who has much more experience than you do at that specific skill.
Practice without guidance can lead to poor habits and a lack of understanding of the skill you’re trying to develop.
For example, if you are constantly reminded that your scene needs an opening Conflict, and you get feedback on whether or not you’ve identified it correctly, you’ll improve your ability to recognize that story element in the future. With a constant feedback cycle, you’ll be able to predict where and how that Conflict should appear in the scene—and when it feels instantaneous and natural.
But what if you can’t come up with your own constraints? What if you don’t know whether you’re experiencing “quality” practice in a high-validity environment?
ENTER, THE CHALLENGE
A “challenge” is a simple way to get your brain oriented in the right direction. We’re odd creatures, unlike any other organism on the planet. Humans ship with an insatiable curiosity. We’re also constantly striving, exploring, learning, and growing.
A challenge provides constraints on creativity. And when facilitated by an expert, challenges happen with quality practice in a high-validity environment.
But before we explore that, let’s examine the benefits of participating in a challenge.
CREATIVITY THROUGH CONSTRAINTS
As we’ve seen, by creating constraints for yourself, you force your brain to grow and learn by not allowing it to fall back on assumed patterns and learned behaviors. To grow is to change.
When I run challenges, I always include a time element—the dreaded deadline. Strangely enough, this works in storytelling as well. Something fiction writers like to call the “ticking clock.”
By setting a deadline or by utilizing a countdown mechanism, we’re now biased toward action. We can feel the pressure mounting as the deadline approaches. Whether you do the work ahead of time because you hate the feeling of procrastination or you use the looming deadline to motivate you into action, we all need a finish line to cross.
For health and wellness challenges, I prefer a 30-day program, which gives me enough time to let my body adjust. I’ve found in my development as a runner that it takes (at age 49) at least two weeks for my muscles to condition to the new stress I’ve introduced. I believe the same can be said for similar physical or diet challenges.
With marketing or writing challenges, five days is ideal because it doesn’t require a long commitment, and my brain starts to rewire after just a few days of quality practice in a high-validity environment.
If all of this talk sounds a lot like habit-building, you’re on the right track.
James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, is a must-read for those looking to modify behavior successfully and to make it stick.
But even the most basic of concepts around behavior change can be beneficial. On his blog, James Clear discusses the four steps necessary to establish a habit.
“The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.”
Every night before I go to bed, I put my running shoes and phone by the door. When I get up in the morning, I’ve cued my brain to shift into “running” mode, and I’ve made it easy to follow through without making a decision.
Before I walk away from my desk each day, I leave myself a Post-it note on my monitor with just one or two major tasks I need to accomplish the next day. When I sit down at my desk in the morning, that Post-it note is my cue—it tells my brain that it’s time to get to work.
Cues can be reminders, alarms, physical items, or processes. The key is to make sure your cue initiates a behavior, that it gets you in motion toward the activity you want to become a habit.
“Cravings are the second step of the habit loop, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.”
Creating a craving can be a challenge because early in the habit-forming process, cravings are theoretical. The desired state you seek might not be attainable when you’re beginning the process, and so you must imagine what it could feel like. Once you’re actively reinforcing the habit, the craving will manifest.
I haven’t felt the “runner’s high” yet, as I’m not at that level of exertion, but I do feel much better physically after a run. After just a few days, I made a mental note of that feeling. I used a habit stack to reinforce it. For example, when taking my first sip of fresh coffee in the morning, I let my mind soak in my post-workout euphoria, and that has developed into an intense craving. The act of making the coffee reminds me to think about my run.
After I finish my words for the day, I enjoy a feeling of completion and success. While this is more mental than physical, compared to running, I can use it in the same way. The good feeling of banking my words becomes a craving that I want to experience every day.
“The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it.”
Here’s where, as Nike so famously said in the most recognizable ad campaign of all time, “Just do it.” The response is the action you must perform, the one you want to become a new behavior.
If I want to become a runner and feel good physically, I must run. There is no shortcut, hack, or way to work around that. To reduce friction, I use the little tip I mentioned earlier about the placement of my phone and shoes. But I still must run.
I don’t know where it came from, but I often find myself saying, “Only writing is writing.” Writers seem to be good at completing other tasks that are tangentially related to writing but are not. Use whatever tip or habit stack you have at your disposal, but if you want to develop the habit of writing, you must write.
If you take the response seriously, you get the reward.
“Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us.”
At first, running didn’t satisfy me. It was hard and painful. But as I kept responding, the activity became more satisfying. And it’s taught me that I can tolerate more discomfort than I thought I could and that I’m more physically fit than most people my age. These rewards keep me motivated.
Writing is the same way. The words come slow and clunky at first. But each day, the word count grows, which is extremely satisfying, and it teaches me that a little bit each day adds up over time.
I don’t believe external rewards are as powerful, although some people use them. Also, I think they can lead to negative habits. For example, if you reward yourself with a chocolate chip cookie every time you hit your word-count goal, you might have to join one of those 30-day weight-loss challenges.
The more intrinsic the reward, the more likely you are to seek it. External rewards work better with toddlers and dogs.
Now let’s layer in the communal power of the challenge and see how others can help us develop good habits.
THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
Whether it’s book clubs or running groups, we’re social creatures. We love doing things with others.
Seth Godin’s mantra is, “People like us do things like this.” That could not be more relevant when it comes to the community challenge.
It’s simply easier to do something with others instead of by yourself.
Before I developed my exercise routine, I would try going to the gym every morning. But 6 a.m. in Cleveland, Ohio—in February—can be brutal and so it would be easy for me to roll over and go back to sleep.
But after I joined a workout group, I felt accountable to the others. If I slept in and they went to the gym to do the hard work, what did that say about me? My effort? My consideration for the group?
In other words, taking on a challenge with others like you can be empowering and push you beyond your capabilities.
The community also provides diversity, and diversity is the excitement that makes life worth living. When you interact with others, who are tackling the same challenge, but in different ways, you can’t help but learn. Exposure to new ideas and new methods always makes our own better, even if the change is minimal. The community reflects different cultures and values, all of which provide a powerful “group think” tide that lifts all of the boats.
And let’s not rule out the simple idea of fun! Tackling a challenge or facing adversity as a member of a team can be rewarding and exciting. It’s enjoyable to watch others succeed, to help them along, and to get support from the group. When the challenge is over, you have a built-in reason to throw a party.
Just because the challenge ends doesn’t mean the interactions do. You’ll make friends. You’ll network (most positively and authentically). You’ll connect. It’s quite common for subgroups to form during and after a challenge, and those can continue for months or years. I know of several smaller groups that splintered off of a challenge or event that are still meeting today. Some of them have even gathered in real life from meeting in a virtual challenge.
Don’t underestimate the power of personal connections and friendships that can develop in a community-based challenge.
BRAIN HACKING – THE OPEN LOOP
We’re hardwired for closure. Open a door, and we want it closed. Start a game, and we want it finished.
What is the Zeigarnik Effect, and how can we leverage it in a challenge?
From PsychologistWorld.com, “Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed the effect of interruption on memory processing in 1927. Whilst studying at the University of Berlin, her professor, Kurt Lewin, had noted how waiters in a cafe seemed to remember incomplete tabs more efficiently than those that had been paid for and were complete. This appeared to suggest that the mere completion of a task can lead to it being forgotten, whilst incomplete tasks, such as serving guests a table who had not yet finished their meal, helped to ensure the waiter remembered their order.”
In other words, if we begin a task, our brain needs to finish it. Simple yet powerful.
But the open loop isn’t the only kind of loop we can exploit to complete a challenge and successfully change our behavior.
THE IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK LOOP
In a 2011 article by Thomas Goetz on Wired.com, he says, “The signs leverage what’s called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction.”
Goetz goes on to describe the stages. “A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.”
Although it might sound technical, feedback loops are the engine that drives learning. We need to try something, get feedback, and then try again based on the feedback—good old-fashioned trial and error.
You can read a book on how to write a good scene, and you should include reading as a part of your learning process. But you’ll make the most significant improvement to your craft if you write a scene, get feedback, and then try it again. Rinse and repeat.
We touched on accountability earlier, but it’s worth revisiting and delving a bit deeper.
Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured, gets managed.”
That’s accountability. And as part of a community challenge, you get additional benefits to measuring things.
You’re doing it in public. You’ll feel pressure to follow through, to perform, and most importantly, to finish. The statistics for online video course completion is abysmal. Many people don’t even start a course, let alone finish it. I know I have several courses I’ve purchased and yet, haven’t started. Why? There’s no accountability. Most of the time, if I don’t do the course, nobody will know or care.
As part of a community, you’re less likely to fall behind. You want to follow through with the tasks because others are supporting you, and you’re supporting them. Whether its tough love, unconditional support, or friendly competition, the power of community will drive you toward completion, which is something you won’t get with an online course.
In addition to the organizer, participating in a group challenge is usually easier because expectations and deadlines have been discussed. You can ask your fellow group members questions you might be embarrassed to ask the instructor, and you get the benefit of seeing the answers to all previous questions asked within the community. Either way, expectations and deadlines are clear and easily clarified.
And some challenges include a buddy system. If you need an additional layer of support or accountability, pairing up with another person can keep you motivated and moving forward, just like a workout buddy would at the gym.
CHALLENGING YOUR LIMITATIONS
A few words of caution: Not all challenges are beneficial. If the event organizer can’t teach or manage challenges, you might as well go back to reading books and taking online courses by yourself.
Just because someone is an expert at a particular skill doesn’t mean they’re an expert at teaching that skill to others. Some of the most brilliant and accomplished writers can’t articulate their process, and therefore, they can’t teach it to you.
But the right challenge can catapult you into the next stage of your career and save you years of study and toil.
SUPERCHARGE YOUR SCENE FREE 5-DAY CHALLENGE
I’ve participated in many challenges over the years and always walk away with positive benefits.
And so, for the first time, I’m hosting a free one called, “Supercharge Your Scene: A 5-Day Writing Challenge.” It’s completely free and developed as an online author community event to make your scenes magnetic.
Let’s be real. I have a client and coaching business. I love helping authors, and I have no issues about making money while doing so. And if you like the challenge, you’ll probably seek out my services.
But the SYS (I like that acronym) challenge is not a bait-and-switch. It’s not a watered-down version of something else. It’s not a fancy webinar where you get the what but not the how.
I developed the challenge after analyzing thousands of scenes with clients and in my work. If you complete the challenge, you’ll walk away with a new sense of how to write captivating scenes regardless of your experience, genre, or ability. I guarantee it.
And hey. It’s free. So I guess I can throw in a money-back guarantee.
Here’s a brief overview of what we’ll cover:
How to decide which scene or article you want to write and why you must write it.
How to frame the scene so you know what you want the scene or article to accomplish.
How to ignite the motivations of your protagonist and antagonist.
How to guarantee that your scene or article explodes on the page.
How to create a difficult, complicated decision for your protagonist that readers can’t possibly ignore.
How to utilize the protagonist’s consequence when you start the next scene.
Click the link to sign up right now.
The challenge starts on June 15, and we’re already gathering in an exclusive and private Facebook group.
I’ll see you there!