The chunky graphite pencil in my hand feels awkward and foreign. My art teacher encourages me to “go ahead, sketch freely, and redefine the lines if you need to.” I am learning to draw from a professional artist for the first time. My teacher knows how to encourage me, not shame my efforts. All she asks is for me to practice 1 hour a week, every day, preferably.
I grew up in a large family of gifted artists, so as the youngest child, I shied away from even trying. It seemed impossible to measure up to all of that family talent. Now, as I get older, I have a growing desire to be creative in as many forms as I can — in my gardening, cooking, writing, work, photography, and now in drawing. I am resisting the urge to judge my efforts, but sometimes it is viscerally uncomfortable to see my first sketches. I am trying to be “good enough” at this and to be OK with that for now.
As I drew my first banana, vase, and apple, I was humbled by all of the artists before me that took that first scary step and then stuck with it to achieve mastery. It simply takes showing up, practicing, and committing to try to improve – over a long period of time, usually. That is the same process, no matter what you are doing, whether it be learning a new skill at work, playing a new instrument, or venturing into public life for the first time.
In my coaching work, I know from experience, how difficult it is to change anything about ourselves and to be vulnerable during the process of learning. Like my art teacher, we encourage civic leaders to try to develop the discipline of spending one hour per week on reading, learning, experimenting, and developing their capacity to govern their own projects or organizations differently. It seems easy enough. But it is not.
I struggled with my own ability to discipline myself. There are a thousand temptations a day that try to lure me away from the work I need to or would like to do. When I first starting working with the civic governance framework, I found it incredibly difficult to carve time out of my schedule to focus on it. I told myself that I had, but my progress was reduced to a snail’s place. I became adept at making excuses. Eventually, like all good teachers, my mentor called me on it and drew a line in the sand. “Are you willing to do the work, Lynne? If you are, you have to be willing to commit to one hour a week on your schedule. A time especially carved out, a date certain each week when this work gets your complete focus.” She explained to me then, and I have seen the same pattern in every other person trying civic governance for the first time, that without that one hour a week to think, learn something new and experiment with what you have learned, that it just won’t ever add up to much over time. This is why workshop learning often fails. There is no support after the workshop, no one holding you accountable for progress, no one cheering you on.
My mentor was right, of course. As soon I put that hour a week into learning the framework and to practice, things started to happen and progress was reestablished. Just as my art teacher makes clear to me now, you cannot develop yourself in any new way without a commitment and discipline. Most important or complex things demand this, yet is it easy to try to cheat the system, then blame the system when we don’t achieve the outcomes we had hoped for.
I believe in the importance of trying to model what you say you believe in. Again, this takes a steely strength, conviction and discipline. Most of us don’t manage to model these things consistently.This is why civic leaders, artists and others need mentors. Mentors are not afraid to call it when our actions are not consistent with our beliefs. They just gently guide us back to the right path over and over until we get it right most of the time.
And so tonight, I will go back to the drawing board, try to draw that vase again, include shadows and highlights and accept my imperfections in the process. Learning is certainly an imperfect and humbling journey. Next time you aspire to do something new, perhaps becoming a civic leader, know that the process will ask a lot of you –commitment, showing up– time and again, patience and discipline. It’s a hero’s journey.
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