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Bad drawings, telegraph poles and paradoxical learning

In his beautiful book, “The Five Invitations” Frank Ostaseki tells the story of a workshop he was running in the rural North West USA.  Whilst talking about the possibilities that arise if we stop running away from that which is difficult, a burly middle-aged man spoke up.  “That reminds me of telephone poles! They’re hard and heavy, standing up to 40 feet high.” The man explained that there is a critical moment after placing a pole in the ground where it is unstable and might topple over, causing serious injury or even death.   He told that many years ago, on his first day on the job as a pole fitter, he turned to his partner and said “If this pole starts falling, I’m running like hell!”  His older, wiser partner replied “Nope, you don’t want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it, really close and put your hands on it. It’s the only safe place to be!”   Frank suggests that this is a good metaphor for life. “When confronted by harsh realities in life, or even some small discomfort or inconvenience, our instinctive reaction is to run in the opposite direction.  But we can’t escape [it], it’ll just take us by surprise and whack us on the back of the head.”

I feel same is true of creativity, in particular art.  Many people I talk with are striving to become better at something that they believe they are not very good at.  When they see their imperfect creativity emerging they instinctively run away from it, rather than move towards it.  So, inspired by Frank’s telephone pole analogy, I tried an experiment to see what would happen if people intentionally set out to do a bad drawing.  I put the request out on social media and received a number of beautifully imperfect images.  I then asked the artist behind each of them a question:

What did you have to do in order to deliberately do a bad drawing?

“Just let go.”
“Just enjoy making marks without it needing to be any good.”
“Make no effort at making it a representation of anything.”
“Keep it at the level of basic, quickly drawn lines.”
“Suppress the urge to make it good.”
“Speed up, start and continue without making it better”
“Don’t stop and try to correct it”
“Be childish.”
“Just say “F*** it!”.
“Just draw and see what comes out.  No intention.”

“Laugh at the “bad” bits and make the bigger.”
“Just do it for me and nobody else.”

These answers fascinated me as I realised they also seemed to be very sage-like answers to the another question:

How can I get better at drawing?

“Just let go.”
“Just enjoy making marks without it needing to be any good.”
“Make no effort at making it a representation of anything.”
“Keep it at the level of basic, quickly drawn lines.”
“Suppress the urge to make it good.”
“Speed up, start and continue without making it better”
“Don’t stop and try to correct it”
“Be childish.”
“Just say “F*** it!”.
“Just draw and see what comes out.  No intention.”

“Laugh at the “bad” bits and make the bigger.”
“Just do it for me and nobody else.”

 

I am fascinated by paradoxical or counter intuitive interventions.  Doing the opposite of what common sense suggests we should do in order to grow and learn.  Moving towards that which we are trying to avoid.   I have learnt more about my own art style by making my ‘mistakes’ bigger and more public.  I have learnt more about life and living by studying death and dying (Frank’s book is about just this).   I have discovered more about my own self-doubt and my inner critic by seeking him out, hanging out with him and getting to know him more and more.   And through the ongoing experiment that is The Lab I have learnt more through hanging out with the inexpertise of others than I have through any expert led workshop or keynote speech.

On a daily basis, what is it that we instinctively run away from that we might instead strive to get closer to?   How would it be to focus on deepening our awareness of who we are, rather than who we are not.  To direct our attention towards settling with ‘this’, rather than seeking ‘that’.  To realise that the obstacle might just be the path.

So if you think you are not very good at something, maybe give yourself permission to be not very good at it more often and see what wisdom this counter-intuitive practice yields.


Thank you to the following for contributing to the bad drawing experiment: Nathan Johnston, Lucy Taylor, Meike Brunkhorst, Gary McCrossan, Chris Nichols, Hanna Suvanto, Charlie Allen, James Wilson.  a collection of their wonderful pieces are shown in the image at the top of this blog
  1. Kathleen King says:

    yes, lovely. I’m learning a new craft and it’s been the only way to go about it. “Beginners mind” i tell myself, as I see what was meant to be a subtle spot of purple on the fabric I am dying turn into a giant blob. It’s an ongoing challenge and once I’ve decided to stay curious, it’s fun and rewarding. But I have to let go of a preconceived notion of what the outcome will be…

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