Study the Craft

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Updated July 28, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Select a piece of work you love or that is revered in your field. Study it. Answer this question: “What makes it great?”

Write down the first thing that stands out to you about the piece of work. Then, write down the second thing. And the third thing, and so on, until you don’t notice any more unique things. Then, read someone else’s commentary on the work—or if none exists, just call a friend and ask them what they notice about the piece. What do they experience that you didn’t? What interests them? What’s the difference between what you noticed and what they noticed?

For example, if you’re a writer studying an article you really like, write down the first 20 lines that interest you, and compare them with the first 20 lines of the piece. Or compare your 20 lines with 20 lines that another writer identifies, or perhaps 20 lines that an editor identifies.

In software, there’s a method of testing called rubber duck debugging. The method is simple—you explain to a rubber duck what your code is supposed to do and talk it out line by line. You can tell it what you plan on doing next as well. The rubber duck, in this case, doesn’t need to be for debugging; it can be the listener to your experience of a piece of art. If you’re shy and don’t want to explain yourself to a friend yet, try it with a rubber duck.

These are all actions you can take to pay attention. Focus on the work. Watch how you react to it. Don’t blind yourself with the craftsperson or artist’s reputation. Instead, use other people’s reactions or reviews of the work as windows into your own—not as your own talking points. Understand why other people consider the work great, and, most importantly, decide whether you agree, and why.

Copy a Classic

Michelangelo was a highly-skilled forger, and selling a counterfeit sculpture would actually impress the buyer and earn him his first patron. Vincent van Gogh copied Hiroshige, Paul Gauguin copied Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne the Old Masters. Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) re-created many hip-hop songs from the 90s to teach himself how to produce music.

Figure: “Flowering plum tree, after Hiroshige” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Credit: Niels, Wikimedia Commons.

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