When you do what I do–help business people write more clearly so they can communicate better–the question comes up, “How fast can you teach a class to write better?” The answer is complicated, but let’s simplify: How much do you want to practice?
We live in an age of convenience. Easy, fast, cheap. It’s our national mantra. I’ve seen clients flip through a complex training proposal to find out how much it costs first.
Recently, I had a business that didn’t hire me explain, “I don’t want someone to teach us how to write, just bring us to a point of iterative completion.” The client wanted me to develop a template that employees fill in. A template to cover all types of communication, from emails to proposals. Templates can be useful, but only if most information remains static or requires no explanation. Writing is a skill that isn’t easy to learn. And it shouldn’t be. We explain ourselves through communication, we define ourselves. That should require some struggle.
Tim Wu, in a recent article in the New York Times (“The Tyranny of Convenience”), writes, “Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.”
Making our lives easy was the promise of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It brought us big-box stores, where we could find a lot of items at a lower price. Too bad it killed off specialty stores. Then we fell in love with instant delivery, which Amazon brought us. We pay for convenience in more than one way. True, struggling is not fun. But it is often more interesting than we think.
Online learning is easier than driving to a school. Of course, in-person training includes asking questions, instant updating, group discussions that share information, and the experience of hearing what other people think and how they got to that point.
We were collectively amazed at the skills of the Olympians–the daring snowboarders, the dazzling ice skaters, the wonder of the skeleton riders, whose concentration is so intense that breathing can change the timing of speeding blades. All of the people we saw on screen, both the winners and those who placed below the top three, spent years practicing, learning, failing, learning how to continue despite their fears, hurts, and defeats. None of them woke up one day, decided to go to the Olympics, packed and went.
It’s the same for any skill. Easy is not bad, but some things cannot be made easy. Relationships, invention, learning a language, writing–in fact, all forms of communication–need to have a level of difficult to make mastering them worthwhile. Convenience is outcomes. Learning is experience. Learning is journey, convenience is destination. That doesn’t mean there should not be short cuts. But there must be practice and failure, too.
When we do things right the first time, we are often rewarded. But failing allows us to re-think, learn from what did not work, and invent what will work. Or work better. Wu, in the article mentioned above, says, “Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.” And it answers the question painted on the post in the photo at the top of this post: How do you create what is your magic?
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia, the author of “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads” and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
Quinn McDonald is a writer, training developer, and creativity coach who can’t imagine learning anything worthwhile without being inconvenienced.