Practice, Knitting, and The Two Selves

Creative work is more like knitting than archaeology.

Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music is a lovely book about music, and practice, and the strange psychological battle that doing anything difficult and creative seems to require.

Early in the book he lays out a very simple framework for how to think about why it’s so hard to learn new things and make progress on seemingly clear goals.

Imagine two small people living in your head. One is named “Self Two”. Self Two is a cherub, an almost helplessly creative little kid, the source of every “what if” and impulse you’ve had to build and share anything.

The other is Self One. Self One is a stuffy asshole, always narrating, in realtime, how you look to other people; how dumb it is to start learning advanced physics in your 30s; how that creak in your knee means your running career is over; how lame that blues solo was! (Thank god no one else was around to cringe. Maybe in a year you’ll be ready to play for other people.)

One exercise in the book has you play a short musical piece, and, as you play, actually speak out loud the bullshit that Self One is spouting. “Chord change coming up, it’s an F chord, don’t fuck up the barre, no no no… And, there it is, wrong again.“ How cruel! No wonder innocent Self Two gives up so often.

Self One loves to show up when I sit down to work through a chapter of Susskind’s Quantum Mechanics book, or when I try to sing along with the guitar.

You know when he never shows up? When I sit down to knit.

Every couple of years I take up knitting for a furious month or two and produce a zoo of stuffed animals. Here’s Sheldon the Turtle from my last bender:

Knitting gives you instant feedback. A knit or purl takes under a second, and fabric just spools out from your clicking needles. It’s completely obvious from the first stitch that if you put in the time, you’re going to end up with Sheldon the Turtle. And it’s psychologically so easy! There is simply nothing to be anxious about; the process is so simple and boring that Self One never even shows up.

We treat hard creative work like archaeology. There’s some nugget of insight buried the ground, and if we don’t reach the nugget, all the sweat and effort we put in is wasted.

I suspect that learning hard math or physics, or music, is much more like knitting than like archaeology. If you put in the time and get your reps in, you’re going to get better. Maybe the only difference between “hard things” and knitting is your ego, Self One, telling you that you’re an idiot. If you can run the gauntlet and just keep reading the page, or playing your scales, some surprising level of skill is going to blossom.

Sure, read The Inner Game of Music, or Deep Work for strategies. Put some lead and lag metrics in place to track your growth and keep Self One at bay with cool logic and hard numbers. Or maybe the most enlightened thing to do is just ignore Self One completely and let him rage.

Whatever you’re finding intimidating right now, try making it feel more like knitting than like archaeology. If you don’t know what to do next… just do something, and smile at the stitches.