“[Y]ou will learn a lot from playing against someone slightly better than you. If you start by playing against a top professional, you will learn only that the professional is very good at the sport—you might as well be watching from the sidelines.”—Bill Aulet, Disciplined Entrepreneurship
“What you must do is read the work of other unpublished writers, the ones who make the same mistakes you do… And actually, just reading these pieces won’t do. You have to critique them.”—Steve Almond, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.
I recently encountered the two perspectives above, these pieces of advice from different fields resonating with each other in my thoughts to incite a gradual, mini-mental-paradigm shift.
We know how important it is to be in the company of masters, in person and through their work. In fact, we’re perhaps hyperaware of this because of constant reminders that continue to bake the learn from the best mindset into our culture of creativity. According to Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist, “You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.” In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro Ono tells us, “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.”
But there’s also value in eating the food that’s trying to be good, engaging work that’s clearly aspiring to be excellent but somehow falling short. That’s another way of exercising and thereby cultivating discernment. The key here is to, as Steve Almond tells us, be able to articulate how the work is falling short. I realize now that honing this ability has served my colleagues and I well, consistently. Don’t forget what lies between immersion in your own writing and mentorship from masters: pushing and being pushed by your peers.
The power of productive workshopping lies in the effective intermingling of different portions of this spectrum.