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consistency is proficiency
Julian Schnabel, Untitled, 1994
For years I felt stuck in a holding pattern, unable to make meaningful progress. I always had a clear sense of what I was interested in, but the actual next steps were opaque to me. I remember being in college and asking my poetry professor how I could improve my poetry. And he said he thought my poems were good. And I said… I didn’t know how to word it, but what I really wanted to say was that I knew they were okay, but I could feel such a delta between what I was making and what I wanted to make, and I wanted to know how I could close that gap. And I guess what I understand now is that no one can really tell you that. The most important thing I’ve learned since then is that consistency is proficiency—only you can teach yourself what you need to know. I just kept trying the same things over and over again, and eventually my life changed.
The tough thing is that consistency can feel like it’s not paying off for long stretches of time. You feel aimless, like you’re going nowhere. You’re not improving as fast as you like. I’m an impatient person, so when I encounter this I always think, shouldn’t I be doing something smarter? But it’s like kicking in a door or breaking a piñata: you have kind of just keep going until something breaks.
I was reflecting recently that most of the ways I push myself are internal. Most of my life has been spent searching for a tone, a scene. My friend J described himself today as “looking for internal validation.” I loved that thought. I always felt so silly and unproductive because my friends were out doing such cool things in the world, and I was spending hours and hours, what, reading another book that I would never talk to anyone about? Writing in my little journal? But different people want to be good at different things. I always wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be able to really understand people. Those were the two things I really valued way before I could admit to myself I valued them. Even if my effort wasn’t visible, it mattered.
There’s no way in other than hammering at the door. And it can take a lot of hammering: we have to be persistent in pursuit of what we want. That, too, is a part of being in the flow of things. (Is that a paradox, that non-doing involves doing? It makes sense to me.) Looking back, I always suffered from a kind of passivity born out of shame. What was I afraid of? Rejection, I guess. Being seen as afraid of “wanting something too much.” Now that seems silly.
I’m searching for something with this Substack that I couldn’t even articulate when I first started writing it (I would crudely describe it as “self-expression”). But I feel myself zeroing in on it over time: the exact nature of the thing I’m trying to say. My promise to myself is that I will be consistent, no matter what.
I believe now that practice is always the way in. But not all types of practice are equal. I think of it like meditation: you can’t just zone out. You have to be there, watching yourself, when you’re practicing. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing right and wrong.
If I could go back in time I would tell myself: the things you fear are not real. What is real is the words on the page. What is real is the people who love you. You don’t trust yourself because you don’t think you’re good enough. But consistency always comes before proficiency. The first step is identifying what you’re willing to do every day for the rest of your life.