During a trip to San Francisco in the Before TimesTM, I remember chatting with a woman about how intimated I was to learn Mandarin Chinese. Symbolic languages are beautiful expressions and I just couldn’t picture myself mastering a language that (to me) sounds like the swish of soft silks. I’ll never forget what she told me. She said: “To learn, you have to practice each word 1,000 times.”
One thousand times.
In an age of content generators that produce images in seconds, it’s hard to imagine practicing anything 1,000 times. And yet, the idea that “practice makes perfect” is not new or groundbreaking. It’s just the opposite of what we, as content creators, are expected to do now: constantly produce, publish, submit, and sell.
Where, in that churn and burn, do we find the ability to practice anything 1,000 times? And why does it matter?
It’s easier for me to conceptualize practicing 1,000 times with a medium like loom knitting or watercolors, because each time I am producing a tangible piece. To get better at drawing hands, I’d need to draw a hand 1,000 times. If I’m drawing one per day, that’s the equivalent of three years’ worth of sketches. By today’s logic, by the end of that period I’d post a better image of a hand—only for that piece to be “consumed” within seconds.
Take away the consumption for a second. After three years, I’d learn how to draw an exceptional hand, and that’s not a skill that disappears. Sure my content might be consumed immediately, but that's not why I practice. I am mastering a skill that, in turn, will allow me to produce better content.
This idea of “practice” is also the reason why I post different efforts of my work. They are not all museum-or-retail worthy, and that’s not why I share them. I can point to each one and say: “Here, I just wanted to play around with the pencils.” Or, “Here, I thought I needed to add more pigment, but I made a mistake. And I am learning from it.” They are all art produced for different reasons.
Without the ability to make and recognize my mistakes, I wouldn’t learn. Without the ability to learn, I can’t grow. Mind you, I don’t believe that acquiring or mastering skills in any craft is a linear progression. You don’t climb a ladder and then, that’s it, you’ve reached your destination. Talent and applicable skills can wax and wane depending upon how frequently we practice, but are also affected by the tools we’re using and our mental and physical health, too. Sometimes, you also need guidance from a mentor/teacher to understand where you’re making mistakes or why a specific technique may not work for you as well as a different one, too.
If we’re all on a journey, I like to think that 1,000 times are steps along that path. Just like it takes time to hike up a mountain, it does take time to practice—and that’s not something all of us have, either. For me, though, one of the lessons I learned during the pandemic is the importance of making time for what I want to do. Painting is not something I can do all day every day, but for thirty minutes or an hour? That I can do.
I never did learn Mandarin, but you know? Somehow, learning the language doesn’t seem as daunting now. It just requires time to practice and, maybe one day, I’ll make space to do just that.