How You Are Learning Your Way To Frustration

This is part 5 of a 12 day blog series called “12 Steps You Must Take To Get Into Creative Flow Whenever You Want” or the more seasonal “The 12 Days of Creativeness”.

So far in this series I’ve asked you to take these mental steps:

But before we go any further I want to share a recent “aha” I had with you.

It’s about how we learn and may run contrary to your assumptions. While it’s longer than most it will help you  take the steps to find creative flow.

In fact if you take notice of just one post in this series – make it this one.

The Four Stages Of Competence

How do you think you learn a new subject?

Here’s a useful model familiar to psychologists that probably sums it up.

To explain, I’ll use a fictional character, let’s call him Joe, a young guy who decides he wants to be an electronic music producer…

Stage 1 – He Doesn’t Know What He Doesn’t Know

Joe went clubbing nearly every weekend during college.

He spent most of his student loan on records and even started his own club night so he could play them out. The club did well, but when DJing he often got frustrated with the tunes other people made.

He just knew he could do it better.

He got a copy of Ableton to put on his Macbook, and started playing around with it. Even though he had no idea what he was doing, he loved it, and got so excited by the sounds coming out of that little machine.

He didn’t have the cash for any decent speakers (he’d already spent his student loan) and did most of his music on the lappy speakers. But he could still picture himself playing these tunes out to a huge crowd, he could almost hear those cheers…

He imagined himself being the next big thing, getting his tracks signed to his favourite labels, travelling the world, rubbing shoulders with his musical heroes and one day becoming as widely respected as them.

Stage 2 – He Knows What He Doesn’t Know

Joe started to get frustrated.

He couldn’t seem to finish anything, and often got stuck at the same point. His loops sounded great, but getting those loops into an arrangement that worked was so hard!

He decided that after college he’d do a music production course where he’d learn how to make the tunes that were in his head. In the meantime he’d find out all he could about music production by checking out free tutorials online.

But the more he learnt, the more he realised he didn’t know. Sometimes it seemed like an impossible mountain to climb.

What had happened to the excitement and passion he used to feel when he turned the computer on? Now it felt like a chore. He’d have weeks where he wouldn’t turn the laptop on, it made him feel useless and depressed.

It took Joe about a year before he went on that music production course. After college he got a job but paying off the student loans meant he couldn’t save up the money straight away.

Eventually he did though and was so excited to learn everything he could about music production. He was glad he did it, although much they taught he knew he’d never use.

But it gave him some confidence to say that he had a working knowledge of the subject.

Stage 3 – He Knows What He Knows

This confidence helped a little with his music.

He worked hard and applied what he’d learnt from the course to his tunes. He consciously used the techniques, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

But despite everything, he still came up against the same issues with finishing tunes.

Ok, the music sounded more professional, but the resistance was still there. And it took him a lot longer to do anything because his mind was crowded with new knowledge.

He finished his course, and in the following months nearly gave it all up a number of times. The course hadn’t taught him how to finish anything. And it had definitely made the process more complicated.

But the one thing that kept him going was that he didn’t want to waste the money he’d spent on the course. It wasn’t cheap.

So he worked hard putting into practise what he had learnt on the course. It took so much time and dedication though, especially as he had a full time job.

Stage 4 – He Doesn’t Know What He Knows

Gradually he started to “forget” what he’d learnt and began to concentrate on how he wanted his music to sound.

In fact, slowly but surely the creative process began to remind him of when he started playing around with Ableton years ago. The excitement came back. Maybe there was a possibility that this could work…

Finally after yet more hours spent plugging away he got to the point where it was now or never. He told himself “I’ll just finish something, anything” and sent it off to one of his favourite labels.

Even though he wasn’t totally happy with it, to his amazement the label got back to him. They asked him to make couple of changes and signed it. He was ecstatic!

The release was pretty successful. The label got great reactions from the DJs they’d sent it to and he started getting a few remix offers and DJ dates. His schedule started to fill up and the pressure of remix deadlines meant that he was forced to complete more tracks.

While he was sure the music production knowledge was still there in his head helping him somehow, by now he didn’t consciously use it, he just made what sounded good.

Before long he wasn’t thinking about how he did what he was doing any more. He just did it.

As this happened his music got significantly better. He was developing his own unique style and as a result each release was turning the heads of his musical heroes.

He’d even met a few of them on the road and started to wonder if he should give up his job. He knew that this was just the beginning…

Lessons About Learning

“Much learning does not teach understanding.” – Heraclitus

Is any of Joe’s story familiar to you? Where are you in the process?

What I’ve described above is the 4 stages of competency:

  • Stage 1 – unconscious incompetence
  • Stage 2 – conscious incompetence
  • Stage 3 – conscious competence
  • Stage 4 – unconscious competence

It’s natural to assume that this is the process you must go through to learn anything. It lies behind familiar traditional education methods.

But there are some problems with it.

The Required Time And Dedication

“Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety.” – Rose Kennedy

With enough time and dedication I believe it’s possible for virtually anyone to learn virtually anything going through this process. There is no doubt that it works for some.

But teaching in this way alone results in a huge loss of talent and potential.

After stage 1, your excitement at the possibilities and opportunities are replaced by self doubt, fear and loss of confidence that come with realising how much you have to learn in stage 2.

This is why traditional education largely teaches you what you don’t know. Most give up somewhere in stage 2 believing they’re “no good at it” or that “it’s too hard”. And of those who are left almost none reach stage 4, due to the dedication needed to get to true mastery.

Some might say that this time and dedication is necessary to “weed out” those who aren’t committed. But I would counter by saying that it also “weeds out” many people who haven’t responded to teaching methods and who have an as yet unknown contribution to make.

In fact I believe that it certainly weeds out more than a few potential game changers who could make the greatest contribution.

Lack Of Individuality

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.” – Henry David Thoreau

You’ll notice that in Joe’s story above that his individuality and distinct style began to shine towards the end of stage 4 when he stopped thinking about what he had learnt.

But I’ll bet that the music he made in stage 1 was also highly individual and distinctive.

Learning music production the “traditional way” is highly unlikely to create a producer that has a distinct style quickly, if at all. By being taught how others do things, or how you’re “supposed” to do something, you’ll end up sounding like whoever taught you.

In order to sound like you, you’ll have to unlearn what you have learnt.

Learning What You Don’t Need To Know

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” – Albert Einstein

By learning what other people think you should know you are learning much that you’ll never need or use. There’s already more than a lifetime’s worth of music production learning that you do need and will use.

So why waste your life learning something you don’t need and won’t use?

Of course, if you want to be a teacher or a college professor, go ahead and learn everything. But if you want to do something with that knowledge yourself, learn what you need to know only when and if you need to know it.

It Creates Creative Blocks

Left brained learning gets in the way of your creativity.

I have had a number of coaching clients who I’ve helped overcome creative block. And this block has come from information overload caused by too many courses and tutorials.

Is There Another Way?

“One of the greatest and simplest tools for learning more and growing is doing more.” – Washington Irving

Here’s what’s most interesting to me about the four stages of competency:

The first stage and last stage have many similarities.

Look at our friend Joe. In stage 4 he wasn’t aware of what he did. He didn’t consciously use what he knew. The creative process was unconscious.

Exactly the same as stage 1!

What If?

So that said, I wonder if it might be possible to go straight from unconscious incompetence to unconconscious competence, without struggling up the two mountains of stage 2 and 3?

Wouldn’t that be great? To completely avoid the risk of losing faith in yourself, getting bored, frustrated and even giving up.

“Impossible!! That’s ridiculous!” I hear you cry…

But it’s not ridiculous. You’ve already done it a number of times in your life.

How did you learn to talk? How did you learn to walk?

As small children, you went from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence when you learnt to do both.

And before you say – “come on Mike you nutter, how can you compare producing music with walking and talking? It’s much harder!”

Is it? Are you sure?

Isn’t learning to walk and talk infinitely more challenging for a baby than learning to produce music is for an adult?

Learn Differently

The reason I’m writing this long post is that you must think differently about the way you learn. Because how you learn is as important as what you learn.

I am a lifetime learner. I love to learn, more than I love to do almost anything else. And I do learn from books and blogs and teachers.

But most of the learning that counts comes from what I do.

There is a place for the traditional learning process that’s familiar and comfortable, I am not advocating banning it. But there are other better paths to mastery, especially in music.

In my experience too much emphasis on left-brained learning will put a barrier between you and your creative right-brained self. The information that crowds your mind will get in the way of your expression.

More Evidence – Take Your Musical Heroes

If more learning meant better music, then wouldn’t every musician’s career be a story of progressively better music?

We all know that this isn’t the case. In fact it’s more likely to be the opposite.

I believe that “not knowing” is usually a far more useful strategy for a successful musician!

In fact, I have no empirical evidence for this, but I suspect that most of your heroes in music didn’t go through the four stages of competency. Certainly the ones I’ve met didn’t, they went straight from stage 1 to stage 4.

Think of all the famous musicians who never read a note of music.

Think of all the musical legends who never had a music lesson.

Think of all the music producers (me included) who never went on a music production course or watched a tutorial.

Yes, I did music at university, but I can honestly say that the process of learning to write music was largely a process of “unlearning” what I had learnt about music theory.

My real learning began when I stopped being taught.

So when I started getting my head around music production (which happened after uni) I stayed away from that kind of learning, and I learnt by doing.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it and was happy not to know. I enjoyed not knowing. I was unconsciously incompetent. But by doing I never became consciously incompetent or consciously competent.

I just carried on doing until I became unconsciously competent.

And the strange thing is that you wouldn’t know from my music when that transition happened. I’m not sure I would either. Because looking back some of my least successful music was the last I created. And some of my best music is what I did when I had no idea.

Because I had no idea.

So How Do You Get From Stage 1 to Stage 4?

Decide that’s how you’re going to learn and start doing it.

Create, finish and learn from each thing you finish. Then move onto the next thing. Each time you finish a track you learn something new.

This might seem like the long and difficult route. Learning tips, tricks and techniques from someone else feels safer and more secure, and acts like a crutch. But you get used to it, and when that crutch gets taken away, (which it inevitably will) you are in danger of falling.

It might seem scary and challenging at first, but you are much more likely to succeed by trusting yourself that you will do it right.

And what I’m showing you in this blog series is a series of mental steps designed to get you to a place where you can gain the trust that you don’t need to know everything (or even anything) before you do.

I’m not sure it’s possible in 12 blog posts but I want you to be comfortable with not knowing. And by helping you to think like this you will gain the confidence, focus, trust and belief so you can create freely without having to know.

Because then, your creative flow will come. And I can promise you it won’t from learning how to compress, EQ, arrange, or the finer points of music theory.

So go back right now and take the steps you’ve not completed yet.

On some level, all of the musicians who you respect have taken these steps.

Some may have done it consciously, some will have just done it without thinking about it. But none of them will have learnt everything they think they need to know first.

And tomorrow I’ll reveal the last crucial mental leap you must take before you “do”.

This is part 5 of a 12 day blog series called “12 Steps You Must Take To Get Into Creative Flow Whenever You Want” or the more seasonal “The 12 Days of Creativeness”.