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Creative Admiration: From Envy to Mastery

Admiration is an artful way to convert envy into mastery.

Note: This article is a follow-up from my previous one on how to shift from fear toward mastery from August 17.

Would watching Michael Jordan waft across a basketball court inspire you to become a more skilled hoopster? Would listening to Eric "Slowhand" Clapton (tagged by Rolling Stone as the #4 guitarist of all time) goad you to dust off your six-stringer and try your own hand?

I've been wondering about these questions. I've been wondering whether or not cultivating admiration can shift envy toward mastery.

The root of admiration is wonder. Literally. The Latin mira translates to "wonder." When you stand before someone you admire, you open up to the possibilities of being human or of being creative. You glimpse even what might be possible for you. And you're drawn toward that person through your desire to be like if not better in your own way than that person.

A few social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis and the forthcoming The Righteous Mind) have studied admiration with mixed results. Haidt and Sara Algoe gathered their college-aged participants for a study of excellence, gratitude, and admiration to observe whether or not certain stimuli could consistently motivate participants to be more exceptionally selfless (excellence) or more skilled (admiration). They showed participants videos of Mother Theresa and of Michael Jordan, for instance. Videos of both did, in fact, inspire the desire to be more selfless and skilled, respectively, but some participants felt more daunted than inspired by Jordan's prowess.

Understandable. There is, I think, a motivation-admiration curve just as there's a motivation-challenge curve. Most people, for instance, like a challenge within their reach. And "within their reach" is key. If a task is too easy, many creative people get bored. Too challenging, and they'll get frustrated.

So, too, with what I'm calling the motivation-admiration curve. With a number of my clients, we study masters in their fields- whether that field is literary writing, photography, marketing, blogging, entrepreneurial ventures. "Find a remote or dead mentor," I say. Then - knowing the folly of trying to discern the magic of creativity from the product itself - we nonetheless study the craft and techniques of certain masters.

Why? Because creative mastery involves in part studying masters.

The idea is to find the right model within the client's range. A client is writing a novel set in another country and with shifting points of view. I suggested we read and study together Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible so she could see how Kingsolver masters the shifting points of view among the mother and four daughters. After she finished reading the novel, she said at first she got excited. "Then," she said, "I panicked. I'll never be able to do that!" The motivation-admiration curve seemed way out of her range.

After I talked her off the bridge, we talked about the purposes of the exercise, and soon she discovered that she could do some of what Kingsolver does but do it in her own authentic way.

She realized she could imitate and emulate. Imitation is the foundation of our mammalian creative impulse. Emulation is the actual building of something with our unique signature - but built nonetheless on the foundation of masters who, we're grateful for, have preceded us.

Once she started delving more complexly into the interior complexities of her characters and started walking in the rhythms of her characters' voices, she got out of her way, so to speak, and started letting each narrator of her novel simply tell his or her own version of the larger story.

Her deliberate study of Kingsolver let her see that it could be done and gave her some glimpses into how (skill) it could be done. Her despair dissipated. And she saw what she could do. And she did it. Her novel likely will be published next year.

Here are three tips to get you started:
1. Choose a master within your field that is "within reach." A master within reach inspires but does not frustrate you. You see you can learn from this person - even if remotely (or even if the person is dead - See Michael Cunningham's The Hours for evidence of his admiration for Virginia Woolf).

2. Some clients keep mastery notebooks and files - evidence of their study of their respective field's masters. These notebooks and files contain actual examples of masters' works, interviews with the masters, and clients' notes, too. Try it. Use some combination of Evernote, hard copy files, and visual files or corkboards to absorb the master's work.
(You're not making an altar to a hero! You're gathering ideas for inspired study!)

3. Imitate intentionally. Our teenaged minds take Emerson's "Imitation is suicide" way out of context when we strut around saying, "I'm an original" - which is, ironically, a very unoriginal teenage stance. Truth is, from being an infant on, we learn what it means to be creative human beings by imitation. You might as well do it intentionally and learn in the process. From imitation comes, perchance, emulation.

Admiration is an artful way to convert envy into skill. But more than mere skill, it is a way of bringing out the best in yourself and giving concrete shape to that best within. It's also an essential way, as an adult, to keep admitting that you don't have everything figured out, that you're never too old to learn something new, and that your field has potential to keep surprising you. Enjoy this one wild life.

What about you?
Whose work within your field do you admire? How have you gone about studying that master's work? Have you ever been daunted by the work or skill of someone else?

See you in the woods,

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