Do People Want To Learn?

I’ve written before about how the public school system doesn’t teach the right things. But there’s a bigger problem underlying the whole rotten mess of concrete and bureaucracy that is the modern public school system. There’s one single assumption that underlies the whole thing, and that one assumption is untrue.

That false assumption? “People don’t naturally want to learn.”

If you believe people don’t naturally want to learn, then what about babies and toddlers? Nobody formally teaches little kids to sit and crawl and walk and talk, but everybody knows that all little children learn these things. It’s really obvious that little children are wired to learn and to learn voraciously. Just look at any two-year-old who annoys the grownups by asking so many questions.

So if the concept of “people don’t want to learn” doesn’t happen until later, when exactly does it happen? If you look at kids, it seems to happen right around school age. Children who a year ago would be annoying with their extreme curiosity mellow out, then proceed to sink further into “I hate learning”.

Still, the same exact children who don’t want to learn in school continue to learn voraciously about things that interest them. It may be things adults don’t approve of, like cartoon characters, or video game stats, or how to bypass the screen time lockouts on their phones. But this is still learning, and it’s still curiosity. It’s learning in absence of being forced to learn, which is why it continues to be fun. So evidently, people can and do learn things that they’re motivated to learn and interested in learning, at all ages.

“But people don’t learn the things they need to learn!” you may exclaim. Let me ask you, what exactly is it that we teach in school that people need to learn? And how do we know that they’re not going to learn those things naturally, outside of school?

What do people need to learn? Reading. Writing. Basic arithmetic. How to exist as an adult. But everyone learns these things of necessity; you can’t function in the world without them. You don’t need school to teach that. And after they have the minimum knowledge they need to function in the world, individuals follow their specific interests to logical conclusions.

Still, what about all those other things that we teach in schools? Spanish, differential equations, mitochondria, whatever? What about how to get into college?

Interestingly, there is a strong and growing subculture of people who raise their kids with no enforced education. And the research shows that these kids can get into college and have successful careers at rates equal to or even greater than that of the publicly or privately schooled population. (Sources: Smithsonian, KQED)

So if just letting kids do what they want is so great, why do we all think instinctively that it shouldn’t work?

John Holt wrote this in his book How Children Learn. “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. […] What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted.”

We don’t think unschooling should work even though it does because the societal wisdom about children, which we all have somewhere in our brains, is wrong. We were taught not to trust how children naturally learn. But we were taught by the very system that profits off not allowing children to learn naturally; we were taught propaganda.

If you don’t need to force people to learn, then, is there no place for teachers, classes, students?

No. There is still a place for that. Just look at all the non-mandatory classes that people take over their lives. People take classes in music and art and tech and science and history and every other thing. Classes can be a very effective way to learn… if the people in them want to learn.

When I was getting started as an artist, I experimented with a number of media through taking classes. When I signed up for them, they were explicitly “for adults”. Not because they had any risqué content, just because they didn’t have anybody to be the schoolteacher, the authority figure. They were meant for adults because they trusted adults. They didn’t trust children.

With some combination of my mom’s persuasive skills and my dashing charm (just kidding, I was like twelve; it was 100% my mom’s persuasive skills) I got into these classes “for adults”. One of them was a wildlife drawing class.

It was a ton of fun and a great experience. I’d been out of school for a while at that point, so I didn’t think it was strange that the teacher just walked around giving advice and making critiques, telling us to help ourselves to complimentary cookies and soda while we drew. I made a few friends in that class, most of whom were many times my age.

A few years later, I took a ceramics class. This one was explicitly “for teenagers”; I think the age range was 15-18 or 13-18 or something like that. The kind of thing that’s meant as an extracurricular for high schoolers.

It was a weird experience. Besides the complete lack of age diversity, there were a ton of really weird rules and expectations. No more than one person was allowed to leave the studio at one time to use the bathroom. I wasn’t particularly annoyed since it didn’t inconvenience me, I was just baffled. It was so unnecessary.

Not only was the class setup weird, but the teacher was also weird. They (I don’t remember their gender) were really distant and not friendly at all, and they seemed to expect this kind of deference. You know those pompous customers you get working retail, where they just expect you to hand them the universe on a silver platter? This teacher acted a bit like that.

I talked to my mom about it on the ride home, and she informed me that it wasn’t that the class or the teacher was weird. It was because it was a class for teenagers.

With classes for adults, you can be sure that 100% of the people there are there because they want to be. Nobody forces an adult to take an art class. If the student has learned what they wanted to learn, the objective of the class has been achieved. But with classes for teenagers, it’s a completely different story. The teacher can’t be sure that the student wants to be there, or wants to learn. Further, they don’t have to answer to the student; the real master for a teacher of teens is those teens’ parents.  The teacher tries their best to make the class interesting and fun, but they have to control what the kids do so that the parents are pleased, and generally act like a schoolteacher, which severely limits their ability to do that.

There is still a place for classes and teachers. These are valuable things. But the public school environment, where the students don’t want to learn and the teachers don’t want to teach and literally nobody wants to be there at all, that is not useful.

So where do we go from here? How does the establishment change?

I propose using the funds that are currently being funneled into the public school system and use it to fund optional classes, held at public libraries. After the “school subjects” are made optional, we can decide to make things mandatory which are important for everyone to know regardless of their interests; things which are necessary for functioning in modern society. Teaching basic technology, psychology, and economics would be a good start: after all, there’s an awful lot of people, tech, and money in the world right now. It also makes significant sense to teach people stuff like basic self-care and first aid, what laws there are, how to pay taxes, how to get insurance, etc etc. These mandatory things, then, can fill the psychological void left by the public school system (appeasing all the grownups who love telling kids what to do), as well as filling the physical void of the empty school buildings.

What do you think? If you’ve got ideas for how the system could be changed, or reasons why it shouldn’t be, stick them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

View From the Bicycle Café

Bicycle Café, North Park, PA

For my painting class, I had to go around town and do five “thumbnail sketches” of landscapes. Only one of those sketches would be used to do a landscape painting, which was the next assignment.

This came out of one of the sketches my professor rejected. Personally, I liked this one better than the one my prof picked.

The Purpose of College, Past and Present

A lot of people complain that college isn’t doing a good job preparing people for the workforce. They toss around statistics like “only 27% of college grads have jobs related to their majors” and “only 62% of college grads have a job that requires a college degree”. Evidently, the only goal of college nowadays is career preparation, and colleges (or maybe college graduates) are failing at this goal.

Why is that? What’s wrong?

To answer that, let’s look back 200 years, to the Revolutionary War. When the first publicly-funded colleges came into existence, their purpose was to educate the top 5-10% of highly gifted white boys, so that they could become leaders and exceptional men. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by the exclusiveness of “small percentage of highly gifted white boys”—it leaves out girls, people of color, and non-highly-gifted white boys—but for the time, it was very progressive. In Britain, college was explicitly a privilege for only the very wealthy. The Americans, then, wanted to move away from that; they decided that college should be available to any highly gifted white boy, regardless of income.

One of the main contributors to this ideal was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote Bill 79, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”, which was presented numerous times through the 1770s and 80s before a heavily revised version was put into law in 1796.

This was still the general attitude through the 1800s. When W.E.B. Du Bois argued for the education of African Americans, he expressly said that college is for only the “talented tenth”, or the “best minds of the race”, so that they can “reach their potential and become leaders”.

“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races.”

This view remained until the turn of the twentieth century, when it gradually started to change. College became a status symbol; after all, it was only available to the top 5-10% of people, so having gotten into college meant you had something special. Something special that employers wanted working for them. College graduates, then, got their pick of the best jobs.

Since everyone wants great jobs, everyone wanted college. As such, the GI Bill was passed, opening college to a much larger population following WW2. The problem was that college itself was not causing people to get great jobs, it was a status symbol that was merely correlated with getting great jobs, and people committed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hocI’ve written about this before.

As college became available to more and more people, it became less useful as a symbol. The symbol was, after all, about being part of an elite few. When this happened, college stopped guaranteeing good jobs, or in fact any jobs at all. But yet, the cultural zeitgeist had shifted: college was for jobs now, not for educating future leaders. It doesn’t matter that the curriculum has hardly changed at all since 1851. College is supposed to magically procure jobs, despite the fact that it has absolutely no way to do that.

College had never been designed to prepare people for specific careers that required specific skills. For the elite future leaders it was designed for, it taught more generic things like developing a cultured and educated and intellectual character. This is great and all, but it doesn’t give you diddly for actual marketable skills.

During the actual time period, when the top 5% were going to college to learn how to be great leaders or whatever, everyone else was learning actual job skills through trade apprenticeships. In fact, many of the leaders did this too: they both went to college and apprenticed at a trade, so they could have a means of making a living while they worked on shaping the nation. Being a person who shapes a nation doesn’t come with a paycheck.

So. Why is college failing at getting people jobs? It wasn’t designed to do that in the first place. During the brief period that it did do that, it was because of correlation based on rarity and status, not causation based on education. And now, despite being basically the same thing that it’s always been, college is saddled with the artificial purpose of getting jobs for graduates, which it is incapable of doing.

Once you know the real history, all the artificial, retroactive explanations of the modern day fall away. All the justifications of the continued existence and high price of college fail to make sense. You start to notice that there is literally nothing that colleges do or pretend to do that can’t be done more effectively somewhere else for a tiny fraction of the cost.

You want a liberal arts education? Sure! Go to the library. Read the classics. Read Shakespeare and Dante and then learn Latin and read Caesar and Catullus and Cicero. Go to museums and learn about art. Go to symphonies and learn about music. You don’t need a university for a liberal arts education.

You want to learn more pragmatic stuff, like math and coding and writing? Sure! Take some online courses. I recommend Gotham Writers, Udemy, Free Code Camp, Edhesive, and Khan Academy.

You want a great career? Sure! Look over the job market, see what kinds of skills are marketable, see what kinds of skills you’ve got, and start looking. If you’re just getting started, I recommend the Praxis program.

You want to network with other smart, interesting, accomplished people? Sure! There are a huge number of online groups and forums, as well as tons of conventions and other in-person gatherings.

You want a status symbol to put on your resume? Well, okay, maybe for that you want college. Get good grades in high school, get 5s on APs, ace the hell out of the SAT, get National Merit, don’t forget your extracurriculars… basically work your butt off for four years in high school, then apply to a bunch of colleges. If you’re both lucky and successful, you’ll get the opportunity to pay a bunch of money in order to work your butt off for four more years so you can put Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or whatever on your resume. And yes, this is a very useful and valuable status symbol. But it’s taken eight years of your life and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In case you want a different route than that, try this. Go apply for a job at prestigious companies in your chosen field, and if you don’t get in, develop your resume and skillsets until you do. It’ll require about as much hard work as college, but unlike college, you’ll actually learn useful skills in the process. Also unlike college, you won’t be in debt by the end; rather, you’ll have been paid for your trouble.

The only reason you should consider going to college is if you’re planning on going into a field that is very, very strict about requiring one. (“All the job listings say they require one” does not count.) For example, if you want to be an accountant, you need a CPA. You cannot sit the CPA exam without 150 credit hours of college, so you’re kinda stuck there. Similar concept with doctors, lawyers, and the like.

Still, in those circumstances, it’s just because the world hasn’t caught up to the uselessness of college yet.

So, should you go to college? Maybe. It depends on your specific goals. But is college the right path for everyone? Absolutely not. And is it a surprise that college isn’t doing a good job at preparing people for careers, given the history? Absolutely not. Actually, it’s a surprise that it’s doing as well as it is.

For everyone to have a good path, the entire educational system needs to be overhauled. But for any given individual, just think long and hard about your career. Don’t march in lockstep down the college path just because college.


A version of this post was published on Praxis’s blog on Nov 5, 2018. Check it out!

College: Rethink the Concept

Let me ask you a question. If you could magically instill every youth in America with specific knowledge, what would you teach them?

Presumably, you’d want to teach them something that would be useful to every one of them, so, what kinds of things are important for every American? How about you teach them how the American government works. The world economy. The Fortune-500 companies. You could tell them which things are legal and illegal, because though everyone knows murder is illegal, there are other things that are more complicated and less obvious. You could teach them their human rights.

Perhaps you could also teach people how to take care of themselves. You could explain what medicines to take for what problems, symptoms for common ailments, and under what circumstances to go to the doctor. You could tell them about things that are harmful to their health: smoking, vaping, unprotected sex, etc. You could talk about symptoms of mental illnesses and healthy ways to cope. You could teach them first aid.

Why not also talk about practical life skills? How to get a job, vote, pay taxes, get a mortgage, get and maintain insurance, or budget finances. Most people are going to become parents, how about we teach them how to raise children?

These are not theoretical questions. We have a method of instilling knowledge into American youth. It’s called public school.

If you think about it, the basic concept is ingenious. We have a program with mandatory attendance, for which purpose we have the resources to transport children to and from a truly gargantuan number of individual buildings. At each building, we have a standardized curriculum, which has specific yearly checkpoints for completion. For twelve whole years, from age six to eighteen, we have the undivided attention of the nation! The undivided attention of the future!

Yet alas, we squander our opportunity. We teach pointless trivia that, in the age of the internet, can be found out instantly. We force people to learn things that aren’t useful to the majority of them.

Why do we do this?

Governments move slowly. The things which we teach in school today would have been much more useful to have memorized when you actually didn’t have a calculator on you, sixty or so years ago. Part of the problem is that the bureaucracy just hasn’t caught up yet.

But there’s another problem. Though people are pushing to change schools, they’re all pushing in different directions. Many of them aren’t asking the fundamental question: “what is the point of this period of mandatory education, anyway?” And of those that are asking, most reply that the goal is college. As if that does anything other than pass the buck.

It seems to me that the buck should stop immediately. The purpose of educating youth is to prepare them to be adults. One part of being an adult is making a living. Another part of being an adult is being a good citizen (knowing what laws exist and how the government works, perhaps also learning history and civics). Adults need to be financially self-sufficient. Adults need to know how to avoid scams. Adults need to know how to raise children – even if they themselves don’t have children, they will inevitably be around kids at some point. Adults need to know how to care for themselves and others.

We teach none of that in high school or college.

A lot of people have it stuck in their head that it has to work this way. That public school is supposed to be useless; as if it’s a necessary evil. That teaching everybody calculus and teaching nobody first aid is a reasonable state of affairs. It’s not.

There needs to be a complete rethinking of the purpose of the school curriculum. Not just “how do we do a better job of preparing more people for college“. Not just “how do we tweak the existing formula to make it a little better in some areas”. We need to completely rethink the concept.

Why You Should Mix Your Own Black

Mix your own black what? Mix your own black paint.

 

You can buy black paint from a store. It will be just about the purest possible black, the exact color of “black as the pit”. But here’s why you shouldn’t do that.

First of all, what black you use is important. You’ll use it as a base for all your darkest colors. Since without dark tones, light ones don’t stand out, what color you use to mix those shadows is going to be one of the most important parts of your painting.

A lot of artists like to talk about the “soul” in a piece of art. That seems confusing, but here’s what it means. Each person sees the world differently, so what you choose to paint (in terms of both the subject you paint and what colors you use to paint it) depends on how you see the world. How exactly you choose to make your black depends on how you see the world, too. So, if you mix your own black, it will fit in better with the rest of your painting. They both have your “soul”.

One of the apparent downsides to mixing your own black is that it will never be consistent. But this is actually an upside in disguise. For example, for this painting, the black I made was tinted purple. However, the black on my palette above (which is for a different painting) is tinted brown. A purple-black suited the former painting more, where a brown-black suits the latter. If I’d used store-bought black, I wouldn’t have gotten to make the decisions which led to blacks suited to their respective paintings: they would all be banal and generic.

Could I have mixed one single color into store-bought black to attain a tint? Yes. But in that case, I as the artist would only have chosen one color; the paint company chose the rest of the colors to make the black for me. For me to have the most control over my own painting, I choose instead to mix my black.

So basically, you should mix your own black because then, it fits with your painting better. You made them both, and not only that, you made the black to suit the painting.

There’s one more reason to mix your own black: you get better greys. When you use store-bought black, your grey turns out as a very lifeless, generic, neutral grey. But the problem is that most greys are not generic neutral: they’re tinted with something. The tablecloth on my dining table is a light grey tinted with yellow. The paper of my Oxford Classical Dictionary is a light grey tinted with orange. The surface of my electric keyboard is a mid grey tinted with blue. If I were painting these things, I would want my greys to reflect all these differences, which is why I would mix my own. Store-bought black will not give you interesting greys.

Now that you know why you should mix black, let me briefly tell you how.

To mix black, just take your darkest colors and mix them in different proportions, depending on what you want your resulting black to look like. When I mixed my purple-black, I took ultramarine blue and crimson in equal parts, then mixed in a bit of dark green and burnt sienna. By contrast, when I mixed my brown-black (above), I replaced the crimson with burnt sienna and vice versa, and added proportionately a lot more of the dark green. Same colors (I only own nine total), but the different proportions produced a different result.

That’s all there is to it! Now, go forth and mix yourself some black.

What Is a Tech Cert, and What Is It For?

Last month, as a part of my portfolio project, I got three MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) certifications, in Java, JavaScript, and HTML/CSS. I documented this fact through my project updates, but if you don’t know what those are, I didn’t offer a lot of explanation.

So, let me take this opportunity to explain what a technology certification is, why it matters, and why if you had to choose between some certs and a college degree, you should choose the certs.

There are a wide variety of different certs, offered by a large number of companies, which demonstrate proficiency with a ton of disparate technologies. Each cert is accorded a certain level of respect in the tech space, based on how central the company offering the cert is to the area of technology tested by the cert. For example: SQL Server, one of the most common flavors of SQL, is owned by Microsoft. As such, the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) in SQL is one of the most highly respected SQL certs.

Most companies who offer certifications offer them in tiers. I’ll use Microsoft as an example. The MTA is the lowest level of Microsoft certification. After that, the next level is the  MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional), and then the MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate). To get an MCSA, you need to pass three or four related MCP exams. The top tier is the MCSE. To get an MCSE, you need to already have an MCSA, then pass one or two additional (much more difficult) exams.

These certifications demonstrate specific things to employers. For example, “I have an MTA in this” means “I am skilled enough at this to get an entry-level job doing it”. “I have an MCSE in this” means “I am an expert at this and have a lot of experience using it”.

Tech certs and college degrees occupy very different niches. Where tech certs demonstrate that you have a certain level of hands-on skill with a specific technology or technological area, a college degree demonstrates (hopefully) that you have a broad proficiency with technology in general. Where a certification is product-specific, company-specific, and clearly leveled, a degree is more subject area focused and doesn’t necessarily include any particular language or technology, and while it does  come in levels (AS, BS, MS, PhD),  the levels correlate to time spent, more than skills earned.

If I say “I have a CCIE”, you know that I have a very high level of technical knowledge about routers and networking in general, and Cisco routers specifically (Cisco being one of the main manufacturers of routers). This is incredibly useful knowledge to employers, who now know exactly what I can do for them. If, however, I said “I have a Master’s degree in computer information technology”, you only know that I’ve spent six years immersed in technology. You don’t know what kind of technology, and if you’re an employer looking to hire someone who knows how to work with Cisco routers, you’ve got no clue if I can do that. My degree might have required one class in networking, or ten, or none at all. You have no idea.

It’s not just that degrees can be highly unspecific and not very useful to employers looking for specific skills. When someone says “I have a degree”, you don’t even know if their knowledge is up-to-date.

Certifications are always up-to-date, in one of two ways. Some certifications are only valid for a certain amount of time. For example, the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional, a cybersecurity certification) expires after three years, at which point it needs to be renewed. Other certifications are version-specific. For example, if you get an MCSE in SQL Server 2012-14, you have it forever, but you’ll probably want to get one in SQL Server 2016 as well once the newer version becomes ubiquitous.

But a degree doesn’t work like this. Once someone is taught a thing in a class, there is no requirement that they maintain that knowledge to keep the degree up-to-date. Furthermore, the thing taught in the class may not even have been up-to-date at the time it was taught. A lot of colleges have reputations for teaching things that are out of date, not out of malice, but because tech changes faster than colleges can. It’s rare to find college classes that teach the latest and greatest, and it’s common to find colleges teaching material that’s out of fashion, unnecessary, or just plain obsolete.

There’s yet another problem with degrees: they aren’t vendor-specific. I mentioned the CCIE before: the networking certification offered by Cisco. That last part is important. The benefit of a CCIE isn’t just that it says “This person knows routers.” It’s that it says “This person knows routers. Sincerely, the guy who makes the routers.” With a degree, it’s like “This person knows how tech works. Sincerely, a college that you may or may not have ever heard of.” So it’s not just the lack of information, it’s also the lack of credibility behind that information.

It is also important to note something kind of unique about tech: many of the seasoned working professionals in the tech space don’t have degrees in tech. This is because when these professionals were starting out in tech, the field was so new that there weren’t many degrees in it. They got degrees in other things: math, electrical engineering, underwater basket weaving, whatever. The thing that made them tech professionals was their technical knowledge, not what came after “BS in” on their resume. And nowadays, with the advent of certifications, these professionals have MCSEs or CCIEs, not college degrees.

Basically, if you have to choose between a candidate for your job who has a college degree in technology, and a candidate who has no degree but has several certifications and a good portfolio, you’re going to pick the latter. Even so, there is a reason for degrees in tech to exist besides “colleges wanted to jump on the tech bandwagon”.

Firstly, college degrees in tech demonstrate a commitment to learning technology over an extended period. Since you can get certs over however long you want so long as you keep them up-to-date, an employer has no idea whether the candidate with three certs has spent one year or five learning that material. College, by contrast, has a consistent, fast pace, so an employer can infer from a college degree that the candidate is capable of maintaining a high workload for an extended period of time.

Second, college degrees are designed to give you an understanding of the fundamentals of the field you’re entering, including at least the basics in the breadth of the field, plus some significant depth in at least one area. A major downside of having only certs is that you may not have a good foundation: you may be a one-trick pony who knows only one thing, and may do that one thing well, but may not know about how it fits into the bigger picture, what it depends on, or what depends on it.

The big advantage of a degree is that you’re going to come out of it with a general understanding of every major sub-discipline. You come out of a degree in tech with a general knowledge of networking, operating systems, electronics, math and logic, and programming. This is generally how every degree works, and it is in fact a valuable service that colleges provide.

The theoretical ideal candidate has both a degree in technology (for the breadth of knowledge and commitment) and multiple certifications (for specific, up-to-date knowledge about vendor technology). Often in the real world, though, employers will pass up someone with a nice shiny degree in favor of someone who has the right certs and a good portfolio.

11pm, First St.

A selection from a recent painting of mine. WordPress wouldn’t let me upload the full photo so I had to crop it 🙁

I met my fiancé at a convention in Baltimore, at one of the last events of the second day. After it was over, we couldn’t find anything else to go to or do, so we walked through the rooftop garden. Eventually we ended up sitting on a concrete bench at the edge of the sidewalk, looking into the cloudy sky. We sat together and talked until it started raining.

This is painted mostly from my memory and partially from the few photos I found of the Baltimore Convention Center rooftop garden (it’s a shame there aren’t more; it’s beautiful). Originally I tried to draw this with markers, but it wasn’t working the way I wanted, so I decided to pull out the oil paints and paint it instead.

So You Want to Draw

Learning to draw seems to be one of those items that a ton of people never check off their bucket lists. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’d love to learn to draw, but very few who’ve actually done it. It’s not like they tried and failed, they just didn’t try.

What is it about art that makes this the case? There are a lot of people who’ve never tried to program, because they think it’s too hard, or because they subconsciously think of technology as magic, or something, but these people aren’t wandering around telling me they would love to learn to code. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who say they’d love to go to Europe, but they usually have a definite plan to achieve that goal.

But art is this weird middle-ground; why is that? Maybe, it’s because nobody knows where to start. I’ve written already about how nobody really knows how art works, and I think that’s a lot of the reason for this problem. Still, I haven’t given an explanation of how exactly to get started. So that’s what I’ll be doing today.

The physical components to learning to draw are infinitely easier than the mental ones. In terms of physical actions, all drawing involves is picking up a pencil and a piece of paper and putting one against the other. Mentally, it’s not that easy.

The first mental hurdle you have to get over is to stop worrying about how exactly you’ll bridge the gap between stick figures and portraits. The actual answer is incremental improvement based on iterative comparisons between your art and reality, but you’re never going to get around to doing that if you worry about it.

Think about how you go about getting stronger. You go to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You come back to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You do this every single day for years. Art works the same way.

That’s really all there is to it. Incremental improvement by putting in a small amount of effort every single day. Here, look at the difference in my art over five years.

The next mental hurdle is getting over the assumption that your art needs to be perfect. When a kid starts drawing, they don’t have that problem; they just don’t think about it. When I started drawing, I wasn’t trying to impress anybody, I just wanted to get better for my own personal benefit. But as adults, we’re a lot more self-conscious than that.

A great trick to help you get over that self-consciousness is to think, “well, that didn’t work.” When (not if, when) you mess up a drawing, or you do something with it that you didn’t like, don’t beat yourself up. Here’s a very recent example. Two weeks ago, I did a watercolor painting of the scene from my back porch. There were supposed to be some hills with trees on them and a house. And oh my god, was it awful. I put way too much paint on my brush, and as a result, the colors were blotchy and the textures and depth vanished entirely. It looked like a shitty backdrop for a childrens’ school play.

But I didn’t beat myself up. Actually, when I came home from class that day (I did this painting for an art class which I’m using as a humanities elective for my degree), I grabbed my terrible painting and I systematically went and found every member of my household so I could show it to them. “Want to see my awful painting?” I asked. Everybody said yes, and everybody laughed at it. I laughed too. It was funny. My brother told me the house I had painted looked like a boat. I laughed harder at that. And the next week, I went back to class, I painted the same scene using oil paints instead of watercolors, and it looked much better.

 

If you can do these two things—draw every day and don’t worry about messing up—I guarantee you will become a good artist. Still, I’ve got a little bit more info for you today. Here are some Art Tips™ that I’ve learned over the years from fellow artists.

#1: Draw what you see, not what you think you see. This one comes from my dad, one of my art role models growing up. He has this astonishing ability to say things that seem completely useless, but are actually incredibly crucial. This phrase is one of those.

Basically, it means “don’t let your brain, which knows how an object is shaped in three dimensional space, mess with your eyes, which are seeing things in only two dimensions at the moment, since seeing things as they are in two dimensions is crucial to drawing on a two-dimensional piece of paper.” You know that the door is a rectangle, whether it’s open or shut, but don’t let that mess with the fact that when it’s open and facing you, it looks like a trapezoid.

To help you actually implement this advice, try to take your pencil and hold it up in front of reality. Trace the outlines of the thing you want to draw and note the movement of your pencil. It may turn out that the thing you thought was flat is actually not, the thing you thought was long is actually short, etc.

#2: Draw, trace, draw again. I don’t know a single artist who can draw everything with no effort. Every artist has things they’re good at and things they suck at. To help you out with things you suck at, try this.

First, find a photograph of the thing you suck at drawing. Look at the photo, then try to draw the thing. When you’re done with that drawing, put it aside. Next, print out the photo and trace it, in as much detail as you want. When you’re done, put it aside. Finally, do the first step again. Now compare the three drawings. The third one is probably way better than the first.

The act of tracing from reality let you figure out where everything is in relation to everything else and gave you a better understanding of the two-dimensional shape of the thing.

The only thing I’d like to note here is that you shouldn’t use this as a crutch if you’re a beginning artist: there are way more things in the real world around you that you can draw than there are photographs on the internet, and if you really want to practice drawing you should learn to draw from life.

#3: Utilize tutorials. One of the best ways to get advice from artists who you can’t talk to personally is to read and watch tutorials. It helps you to incorporate other artists’ drawing styles into your own. The only problem with art tutorials is that some of them suck, and this can really screw up beginner artists.

Here’s an example of a good tutorial (source: Tumblr). Look at how this tutorial is structured. “Backgrounds generally work like this. Here’s some advice about drawing characters with and without backgrounds. Here are some tips about coloring. Here are some examples from my personal portfolio.” Overall, this artist leaves a ton of the actual art up to you, and simply communicates something they think is important and relevant.

Here’s an example of, if not a strictly bad tutorial, a very mediocre one. Do you see the difference? Instead of providing a loose structure and some advice, this tutorial marches you in lock-step through a pre-defined set of steps. The absolute best thing that can happen with a tutorial like this is the artist comes out of it knowing how to draw one single character in one pose with one expression, with no clue how to generalize that knowledge to anything else. But even that doesn’t happen very often: frequently, a beginning artist gets stuck on one or more of these predefined steps (for example, the eyes or hair, both of which are complicated), and comes out with a mediocre drawing that they don’t like, and with no real knowledge gained.

When you begin drawing, try to avoid lock-step tutorials in favor of loose advice-giving tutorials. You’ll learn more, and you’ll be less frustrated.

#4: Don’t worry about developing an art style. You will develop an art style. It is not optional.

This is because each person views the world (not philosophically, but with your actual eyes) differently: we notice different things, perceive colors differently, etc. And since you view the world differently from everyone else, your art will be different from everyone else’s. Nobody else could create your art because nobody else sees the world exactly like you.

I’ve noticed that a lot of beginner artists look at the styles of artists they admire and they worry about how they’re going to develop their own art style. This partially goes back to “don’t worry about how to get there, just put in the reps every day”, but they also don’t realize that they have an art style by virtue of having eyes and a brain.

If you really want to work hard at developing an art style you like, though, try this. Occasionally, imitate the styles of artists you admire. Because you have no choice but to draw in your style, by imitating their style, you’ll be incorporating both styles together.

Alright, that’s it for today! A lot of these tips are things I wish I had known when I started drawing, so I hope they were helpful to you.

Why to Start Early: An Example from My Youth

When I got my first job at the age of fifteen, I’d already had seven years of volunteer experience. I didn’t know that this was unusual at the time – after all, my siblings and many of my friends had this too. I’ve since realized not only was it unusual, it was awesome.

For some time, my family has been running a learn-to-ice-skate program in Schenley Park, PA. (I’ll be colloquially calling it Schenley from here on out. It’s what we call it in my house.) In many respects, it’s a pretty standard learn-to-skate thing: we’ve got 10 lessons over 10 weeks from December to February, our instructors are volunteers from my skating club, we teach anybody over the age of 3, and we follow the standard United States Figure Skating (USFS) approved curriculum, with minor variation.

The only notable difference is that we have no age prerequisite to be a teacher. Our only prerequisite is skating skill: we require instructors to have passed the pre-preliminary field moves test, which basically just makes sure our instructors are much better skaters than the students they’re teaching.

This means that we regularly have instructors who are as young as 6 or 7. You may think this is a recipe for disaster and chaos, but actually, both our program and the kids get a ton of benefit from this arrangement.

When we take on any new instructor, of any age, we start them teaching “tots” – toddlers <5. We frequently have a large number of tots, who are completely incapable of doing anything as a cohesive group, so having as many instructors as possible teaching tots is important. However, it takes almost zero skill to play with toddlers, and that’s essentially what we’re doing (just on the ice, the goal is to get the kids used to being on skates).

As it turns out, 6 and 7-year-olds are actually brilliant for this. If you pair them up one-to-one, a bunch of young children teaching a bunch of even younger children actually works incredibly well, for a number of reasons.

First of all, children are so much more capable than modern society gives them credit for. If you expect a young kid to be responsible enough to help teach tots to skate, they’ll rise to the challenge. I’ve seen this over and over again, with so many kids. They come to us at the age of 6, 7, 8, hesitant and not knowing what to do, having no experience with being taken seriously, and we say “there’s your group, go and help teach them how to fall properly”. And they do it! Not only do they do it, they do it really well!

In a way, children are better at teaching tots than adults, because they themselves were tots not too long ago, so it’s much easier for them to intuitively understand how best to teach them. Adults have more capacity for complex thought, and we can frequently let that cloud our perception of young childrens’ behavior, attributing much more intent to childrens’ decisions than the children actually had. The children themselves don’t have that problem.

In addition to giving kids responsibility from very early on, volunteering at Schenley lets them improve their own basic skating skills by virtue of teaching them. The best way to learn is, as they say, to teach, and these kids (who are all ice skaters) are teaching ice skating fundamentals.

Still, I think the coolest part of the way we run Schenley comes after someone’s been at it for a while. As a young kid gets more experience with teaching tots (and simultaneously gets older and acquires more skating skill), they can take on larger classes, higher levels, and more responsibility. They go from teaching one toddler to 5, 10, 20 kids; from teaching how to fall down and stand back up to more advanced skills like gliding on one foot, jumping, and skating backward; and from merely showing up and helping teach the lesson to helping organize materials and coordinating with other instructors.

And after having worked with us for years, a 16-year-old can look back and say, with complete and total honesty, that they have ten years of experience working somewhere. At a time when many young adults are just starting their first jobs, a teen having an entire decade of work experience, even as a volunteer, is huge. Since entry-level jobs are an area where soft skills are arguably more important than literally anything else, the kids who’ve worked with us are more prepared than most others.

I don’t just see kids doing this. I was a kid doing this. And honestly, working as a volunteer skating coach for so long was one of the best things I’d done with my childhood. I had the opportunity to do something valuable from a very young age, and I’m immensely grateful.

But it wasn’t anything special about Schenley. Coaching ice skating doesn’t magically create capable children and accomplished young adults. The important part was starting kids at doing something useful (that they could handle, of course) very young, and then progressively giving them more responsibility as they could handle it.

If you have kids, try to find a place like Schenley. Or, even better, make one. Very young kids can do household chores, address envelopes, and organize files. The key is to not give them make-work. The work needs to actually be useful, even in a small way; they will know their work really matters to somebody or not. And as they’re able to do more useful things, let them. Maybe a three-year-old can’t do the dishes, but a ten-year-old certainly can. Lastly, don’t worry if they’re in over their head a little bit. If they can’t really do the thing, as their parent, you’re there to help them out. But on the other hand, you don’t know for sure. Maybe they’ll surprise you. I think fifteen-year-old me surprised my mom by building Speset.

If you run a volunteer organization, seriously consider removing age requirements if a skill requirement is all you need. Young kids are an immensely under-utilized resource in modern society, and you can benefit greatly from utilizing them. And perhaps more importantly, the kids themselves will benefit from it. After all, the next generation is our future, and all that jazz.

See you tomorrow!

The War of Art: Review, Notes, and Doodles

Recently, my pals at Praxis sent me a book called The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I read it through in an afternoon, because I have exactly zero impulse control when it comes to good books.

It was both brilliant and stupid. There were several pages in a row during which I chanted “yes yes yes yes” aloud. There were also several pages that left me thinking “is that really necessary?” And then there were the rest of the pages, which all pretty much left me going “yeah, alright, that makes a lot of sense.” Overall, it’s a good book.

One of the biggest reasons that I think it’s a good book is because the things I liked and didn’t like have much more to do with me than with the book. My general life philosophy is heavily based on two things: the WYSIWYG rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky lays out on his blog Less Wrong and in his book Rationality: From AI to Zombies; and the cheerful, playful discovery one understands immediately upon reading anything written by Richard Feynman.

Given that, you can pretty much predict the parts of this book that I especially like: they’re the ones about the difference between humanism and fundamentalism (found on pages 34-37 of the print copy). For example: “[The artist’s] faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world. The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. … The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.”

You can also predict the parts I kind of dislike: mainly, the assumption in the third section that all things that happen subconsciously are due to some outside force, higher plane, etc. For example: “What Blake means by ‘eternity’ [when he wrote that ‘Eternity is in love with the creations of time’], I think, is the sphere higher than this one, a plane of reality superior to the material dimension in which we dwell. In ‘eternity’, there is no such thing as time (or Blake’s syntax wouldn’t distinguish it from ‘eternity’) and probably no space either. This plane may be inhabited by higher creatures. Or it may be pure consciousness or spirit. But whatever it is, according to Blake, it’s capable of being ‘in love’.”

But the thing is, if you’re a different kind of person than me, you’ll prefer different parts of this book. That’s what marks it as good. Every person can get value from it.

That said, here’s what this book does.

It shatters you into a million pieces, names the pieces, and teaches you how to interact with each one for optimal creative productivity. One piece, the author calls Resistance. Another, the Ego. Still others, the Self, the Unconscious, angels, muses. It’s an extremely intuitive explanation, and when interacting with your own brain, objectivity is less important than subjectivity. Regardless of whether or not you are a mere conduit for creative forces which mostly exist outside of you, thinking that way will help you both be more humble about and distance your ego from your craft.

This book doesn’t tell you what’s true. But it does tell you how to think about yourself and your work. That’s just as valuable.

In case you’re still not convinced to pick this up and read it, here are the opening words of the book, where he describes the primary enemy, not just of artists and creatives, but of people everywhere: Resistance.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

“Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? … Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”

Now that (I hope) I’ve convinced you to go read this, let me share one more thing with you before I leave off for today.

Some time ago, I read an article about why you should write in books. I can’t find the article, which leads me to believe that I probably read it for the SAT and that’s why it’s so damn obscure, but regardless, I read that article and now I always read with a pencil in hand.

Because I’m an artist, I don’t just write in margins, I draw. If I’ve got a verbal thought, I put a note down; if I’ve got a visual thought, I put a drawing down. Some books don’t have enough white space for my margin doodles to be any good, but the structure of this book means it has a lot of white space, and as such, a lot of margin doodle room!

Alright, that’s it for today. Till tomorrow, ciao!