How to get damn good at your craft

If you’re anything like me, you’re interested in perfecting your skill. Interested in getting so good that people CAN’T ignore you.

(imagine your preferred client throwing dollar bills at the screen, shouting “Shut up and take my money !’)

In this post, I’m going to share my tips of leveling up your craft so you can survive and even thrive in your creative career.

But first, let me tell you where I’m coming from.

Some people look at my illustrations / designs and say, you’re one heck of a talent. I hate that, because it makes me look like a wunderkind that popped out of my mother’s womb, cranking out a Picasso once I hit the hospital ground. Splash, bam, ta-daa !

I always reply that I have zero talent but 100 percent dedication. I started drawing when I was seven and never stopped. My early drawings were degenerate stick figures just like everyone else’s. But they stopped drawing, and I didn’t. Other kids played with toys, I drew. Other kids watched TV all day, I drew (in front of my TV.) You get the spiel.

Drawing was my oxygen.

And when I hit my early twenties, I wanted to get more methodical about it. No more drawing for the heck of it, I wanted to find a system that helped me improve consistently.

And it started with one word –

Dissection.

Famed business strategist and peak performance coach Anthony Robbins once said mastership of a discipline means you can differentiate on the smallest level.

I think it’s a grrrreat definition because it’s practical. Let’s explain that statement with a visual example.

The Inuit have hundreds words for snow, while most Western languages only have one – snow. Now why is that ?

It’s based on survival. The Inuit live in snowy regions. The ice is a part of their lives, so differentiating between hundred kinds of snow is essential to their survival.

They have to know which ice they can walk on so they don’t break through it and freeze in the water below. They have to recognize which snow is pure and which one is contaminated. They have to know which animal can be caught under different snow and ice conditions.

Hence, the more they know about snow / ice, the higher their chances of survival. They can differentiate snow on the smallest levels.

It’s no different in the creative business. Show some clueless person a pencil and he says, yeah, well, it’s just a pencil.

Show a pencil to an illustrator and she’ll say, it’s a 4B pencil with a lead that breaks if you hold at a steep angle. It works best on rough, yellow cream paper. It’s best used for rough drawings because the lead is soft and won’t allow for details. It easily smears and can easily be erased, opposed to pencils in the H range that crank out fine details but are hard to erase and destroy the paper because the lead is so hard it edges right through it.

Phew. The former sees “just” a pencil, the ladder shows you the itsy-bitsy details. Again, she can differentiate on the smallest level.

If you want to get damn good at your craft, you have to do the same. And dissection will get you there.

Dissection means you break your craft down to its tiniest components. Here’s how.

1.) Ask yourself the right questions.

dissection
Early on in my life, I fell in love with the artwork of Jamie Hewlett. He’s the British illustrator behind the comic Tank Girl and the cartoon band Gorillaz. I looked at his artwork and felt the saliva dripping off my lips. Drool, drool. This guy was so good at drawing, but I couldn’t tell you why. Until I asked the right questions. To myself and the pros.

Thankfully, I have an artist as a mother. I would take the images from the illustrator and ask her, what makes it so damn good looking ?

She would say it’s because he uses complementary colors. It’s exciting because he uses stark contrasts – small and big shapes, negative and white space, edges and curves. Contrasts which excite the eye and create enjoyment for the viewer.

This is how I learned. I dissected illustration after illustration, asking top people in the field to help me analyze them.

If you listen to interviews with engineers and other technical minded people, you hear the same stories. Back in the day, they’d take apart their grandma’s radio just to see how it work. They’d dismantle a computer to see what each piece of hardware did. Learning by dissecting.

Do the same. If you want to learn kick-ass writing, take it apart. Choose paragraphs that you think are well written and ask good writers what makes these paragraphs part. Or find it out yourself. When I read Seth Godin, I asked myself what made his writing so effective.

I learned that he writes like he talks, which makes for a good reading flow. He uses five dollar words instead of ten dollar words, which makes him easy to understand. He uses minimal prose. He incorporates storytelling when explaining principles. You got the idea.

So…

1) Pick prime examples of your preferred skill. It could be writing from your favorite writer, design from your favorite designer.
2) Ask yourself why you like it. Ask pros in that field why the work is so good.They’ll help you dissect it.
3) Once you learn what makes it good, you know what you need to do.

2.) Learn the principles.

theory
Once you get used to breaking down your skill in its essential parts, it’s time to learn the underlying principles. Now remember – principles are not rules, they are tools. Man-made theories that permeat every human field.

A storytelling principle for example is the character arc.

You have a protagonist with a desire and a moral weakness. He hurts people around him and he doesn’t even know why. Then something happens and he has to cope with the new changes in his life. He gets pushed to the extreme. He usually faces an antagonist who represents the other side of the moral weakness. In the showdown, the protagonist faces his opponent which is really a fight about the “right” moral worldview. After the showdown, the character has learned his lessons (or not) and achieves a new (moral) equilibrium. He’s upgraded to a new level of life.

Now this is not a law, but it’s a principle which you see in most Hollywood movies and genre fiction. It’s useful to know it so you can break it.

So…

Read everything about your craft and learn the principles. Get all the input you can so you know what people “agree upon” in your chosen craft. And then, when you know how it works, you know how to change it in your favor. Which brings us to the last point.

3.) Do the original remix.

orignal remix
So first you break your skill into its pieces.
Then you learn the basic theory of assembling the pieces.
And now ? You learn how to assemble pieces in different ways.

Also called remixing. Hint : Everything we create is remixing.

Star Wars is nothing but a remix of existing ideas.

You have a medieval world set in space ( Jedi Knights, Princess Leia, Galactic Empire etc.)
You have Eastern flavored philosophy and mysticism (Jedi, the Force)
You have the wild west (Han Solo, Mos Eisley, bounty hunters)
You have sci-fi (robots and spaceships)
You have old school, classical music in futuristic space (“inspired” from an older film called ‘2001 – a Space Odyssey)
etc.

If you dissect Star Wars, you find many existing ideas. But if you put the existing all together, you have something original.

Originality is really good remixing of existing ideas.
Ergo, lack of originality is really bad remixing.

Let’s say someone watches the TV series “Walking Dead.” and plays the video game “Resident Evil”. Let’s say this person wants to write a sci-fi apocalypse novel. How high are the chances it’s going to be an original story ? Super low.

Why ? Because the inspirational sources are too close to each other. Both Walking Dead and Resident Evil are about Zombies and survival. It’s idea incest, so anything you create from similar sources will yield similar results. More echo in the echo chamber.

So, the more original you want to be, the more original you have to choose your remix-able sources.
That’s why you should get interested in topics OUTSIDE of your chosen craft.

Right now, I’m heavy into storytelling / writing and illustration / design. However, I learn about science, global news coverage, economics, food making, sales strategies and video games.

So…
If you into design, learn about storytelling.
If you’re into storytelling, learn about visual design.

You get the spiel.

A broad, multi-interest in diverse topics will maximize your potential for original remixing.

Think of it as a gene pool. The more diverse, the better the offspring. The less diverse, the more likely the chance of incest.

And the further the sources of your input are from each other, the more original your output.
If you learn about asian cooking and infuse lessons from that into your webdesign, you’re more likely to craft original work than if you take all of your inspiration from other webdesign work.

Diversify or die.

Conclusion

I should say summary.
1) You break your craft into it’s single pieces. (practical)
2) You learn the principles of building with pieces(theoretical)
3) You rearrange the pieces in new, interesting ways (original remix)

Now, what do you do to get damn good at your craft ?

  • http://malharbarai.com/ Malhar Barai

    Well, I do not know how I landed on this post, but it is awesome and glad I read it.

    Breaking down any profession to basic and learning, no one could have explained it better.

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      Thanks man – I’m a huge believer of breaking down stuff into its single pieces. I hate the notion of talent – I believe most people use it as an excuse :
      “I could never do that, I’m not that talented.” and other yadda yadda. So much out there is learn-able once you dissect the process.

  • http://explode-my-sales.com/ Hassassinz Creed

    Mars I salute you sir. Your posts are frikkin awesome.

    Your imagery and similes arrest my attention, slam its head against the wall and
    leave me powerless to read your writing.

    How did you learn to write similes in the fashion that you do?!

    P.S. I like to follow the advice of the great Gary Halbert and handwrite any writing that stands out to me :)

    • http://www.marsdorian.com/ Mars Dorian

      Thanks man, really appreciate that you’re talking the time to write this.

      it’s been a looong ride of practice. I’ve answered it in your e-mail, hopefully it helps you. I think a non-native speaker has an advantage because he learns English in a totally different way. I’m very methodically in my approach, almost like a scientist in that regard ;)

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