Reaching One’s Personal Best is Rarely an Individual Effort

Recently I had the good fortune to participate in a think tank about coaching, in particular about coaching teachers. We were asked to read an essay by Atul Gawande titled “Personal Best” that had appeared in The New Yorker. Dr. Gawande who is a very talented surgeon came to the conclusion that he wanted to improve his surgical skills. He had the opportunity to hire a tennis professional and in the short lesson with the tennis pro improved his serve and his game. This inspired him to ask a former medical professor to observe him during his surgeries and give him feedback. Dr. Gawande talks in the essay about how his former professor was able to watch him and take notes. The professor made suggestions about small things that could improve the surgeries and Dr. Gawande saw his complication rates edge downwards. He also talked about how by opening up to this type of coaching he made himself vulnerable and how people questioned his competence if he was bringing in a coach.

I have been an artist and a writer for over 25 years. A great deal of learning how to do visual arts or writing simply comes with actually doing the work. Over time one learns how small amounts of bright primary colors can lead the eye across a painting, how to create surface movement with line and contrast, how to create subtext with the minimalist amount of specific details, how to use one character as a foil for another and highlight themes and conflict, or any of the other hundred elements that can make or break a piece. All of this is not enough. No one can look at their own work entirely objectively. It takes time for an artist or a writer’s inner critic to develop and out of necessity the process must include other people.

When a writer or artist first begins to pursue their craft, words and images come quickly and easily. It is all a great deal of fun, but those first critiques of one’s work can feel brutal. While critiques should not be personal and should be about the work, sometimes at first they do feel personal. One’s baby and talent are being scrutinized at the same time. It can be hard to take and an artist or writer needs to find a teacher, class, or critique group that they feel comfortable in and trust. Creating art or writing is a risk taking endeavor and trust is essential. Trust has to be built up first in what the teacher or critique group says so that it can be used to learn and guide the production of new and better pieces. With this feedback from other people, eventually over time one’s own internal critic learns criteria to be able judge the work and the artist or writer learns to trust their inner voice. The inner critic must be trained to do this and other people are needed to make this happen.

Even after an artist or a writer has been creating their work for awhile, there is always room for improvement. Humbling oneself, making oneself vulnerable, and asking for feedback is a way to push one’s work farther and make it better. Artists and writers mainly do their work in isolation but they need community if their work is to become their personal best. This does not make them entirely subject to the opinions of those that are giving them feedback, it gives the artist or writer information to think about and to base decisions on. Writing and the creation of art are thoughtful acts and the decisions to be made about where to take a piece are those of the creator. Just because a teacher or a critique group says that something should be done a particular way does not mean that it must be done that way. It is information to be analyzed and the decision is the writer or artist’s to make. Critiquing can be a dialogue meant to spur thought and discussion. The community of artists that were known as the Impressionists would not have created the movement that they did if they had not had all of the members contributing their individual thoughts and commentary on one another’s work, general philosophy, and techniques.

Whether a person does art, writes, races bicycles, teaches small children, etc. all of us need other people to reach our personal, individual best.