Experts and Motivation

So, it’s that time of year when we’re all full of optimism and enthusiasm and determined to really “do” those things on our “to-do” lists for the New Year.  I was hoping to be out for a nice long walk today as it was the first time that the sun had made an appearance in a while, sadly, I spent the whole day in front of my computer thanks to a dodgy knee.  I’ve tried to put this time to good use and in between wasting time on Facebook, updating my Twitter profiles, finding new people to follow and “doing research” by looking at fashion and design blogs, my current incapacitated state got me back to some notes I’d been making for a blog post about experts and motivation.

At first I thought these subjects would make two separate posts, but the more I came back to my notes to add to them, read them and edit them, I realised that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive.  To be good at something, you’ve got to do it a lot and to spend a lot of time doing something you should really want to do it, which will need a bit of motivation.

Now, do you want to be an expert sewer or a capable sewer?

Apparently, it takes 10 000 hours of practise to be an expert at something.  If you only spend 5 hours a week doing that something it’s going to take you 38 years to be an expert!!  Alternatively, working 35 hours a week at it full time will take you 6.5 years.  I’ve been sewing since I was about 12 (which was a lot of years ago), have done a 4 year fashion degree, a 2 year MA, a one year PGCE, spent 7 years as a designer/maker and have been teaching for the last 5 years.  So, I think you can trust me!

Not everyone needs or wants to be an expert, so why not be an enthusiastic learner and see where it takes you?

When I’m teaching people to sew, I often see frustration, lack of patience and self doubt.  When faced with these situations I sometimes compare learning to sew with learning to play a musical instrument; your fingers need to get used to handling fabric and being nimble, just like learning the positions on an instrument.  Let’s face it, if you were having piano lessons would you expect to be able to play a recognisable tune in a concert after only a few hours of classes?!  I also find the process of learning a new skill has many similarities with physical exercise, would you expect to be able to run a marathon after you’d just started jogging once a week?  It’s all about practise and training.

I used to do a lot of running.  Sadly at the moment thanks to these dodgy knees I can’t, but I will get back to it because  I loved it, it was hard work but when I did it regularly I saw the benefits.  A big lesson that can be applied from physical training to learning any new skill is to plan your training and record your progress.  When a friend and I were training to run a half marathon we followed a strict training schedule and because it was there in writing (and someone else was participating!) I was less inclined to miss a session and the reward was being able to see in black and white the evidence of the progress we were making; from 4 miles being a big achievement when we started, to comfortably cheering each other on to run 13 miles only 8 weeks later.

Plan your learning, make time to practise and keep a file or sketchbook of samples, notes and photographs of your work so that you can see the progress you’re making.  Join or form a group of like-minded people, take some sewing classes to get you started, or set aside time for yourself at home (if you’re self disciplined enough!).  The company of like-minded others and a bit of encouragement and idea swapping can make all the difference.

Once you’ve mastered some basics and exhausted yourself with the amount of concentration required (!) you can reap some early benefits……..a few things will start coming to you automatically; you won’t have to rack your brains to remember how to thread the sewing machine, bring up the bobbin thread or remember how the tension setting works.  I watched a fascinating Horizon documentary where volunteer knitters had their brains scanned while knitting.  The first scan was done while they knitted in a way that was natural and familiar to them, a second scan was then done while they did a different and unfamiliar style of knitting.  Comparison of these 2 scans showed that the practised and familiar movements of their favoured style were almost automatic, with much less brain activity required.  This state is often referred to as “flow” and anyone who has something they enjoy doing, that they can “lose themselves in” will recognise it.  It’s where the pure enjoyment of a skill really kicks in.

For me, exercise has a similar effect to being absorbed in a creative project.  When I exercise I seem to be in a different place in my head and it’s almost as if my brain starts working a bit differently; I’m able to think about things that I seem unable to make time for or to focus on in daily life.  I’ve had some of my best ideas while exercising and I also indulge in a bit of “creative visualisation”.  This is a practice that may have started with sports psychologists to improve the performance of athletes and as far as I understand it is a very simple concept – basically, if you imagine yourself in a situation (and I mean really imagine it – how do you feel, what does it look like, who else is around?) then you’ll manage to achieve it.  I know it sounds a bit “airy fairy” but I honestly believe it works.  I don’t actually sit down and think “right, now for a bit of creative visualisation”, I tend to drift off into it whilst exercising.  I used to imagine myself getting a first for my degree while in the gym and had the idea for MIY Workshop in the same environment and as a child I imagined myself doing pretty much what I’m doing right now!

So, patience, practise, the company of others, a plan, a record of your progress and the motivation of a goal are the tools you need.

This approach will work, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve had students that have struggled and battled, but persisted and practised and kept that appointment with themselves every week and made real and satisfying progress.  Look at the pictures of student work on my blog – most of them came to me as beginners with little or no experience.  The key is to want to do it and to enjoy doing it.  So get out there and have a New Year run, it may even help your sewing!  Trust me, I’m (allegedly) an expert….

2 responses to “Experts and Motivation

  1. Great post for a New Year. Thanks Wendy 🙂


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