A professor once told me that mastery requires a minimum of ten years of consistent and committed focus on a craft or a subject. We don’t normally think of a relationship in terms of “mastering” another person, but the same rules apply to learning another person and learning a craft such as writing. Both demand the patience and perseverance of paying attention to the intricacies and nuances of the same thing over an extended period of time.
Consistency has never been my strong suit. I have spent a lifetime as the “Jack of all trades, but the master of none.” Until my current relationship, I never lasted beyond a few years; any initial signs of conflict sent me running. Eventually realizing the same issues repeated in every relationship, I focused more on my ability to commit to the discomfort of conflict and intimacy rather than searching for a non-existent perfect partner.
My current goal in relationship is to focus on my own contributions to our happiness and discord rather than always focusing on what he is or is not doing. Amid my personal evolution in relationship, I have struggled to write professionally. So I started thinking about writing through the lens of relationship and personal responsibility. It occurred to me that the exact same rules apply. The fact of the matter is I simply haven’t been applying them to writing.
So, here are the rules that apply both to writing and relationships (and just about anything that takes work):
- It will take ten years. As my professor stated, obtaining any level of mastery in writing or in my relationship will take ten years, so I can quit beating myself up for my lack of mastery. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell supports this with his claim that a 10,000 Hour Rule is the key to success (reachable with 20 hours a week over 10 years). I need to accept the imperfections and strap myself in for the ride, and remember it’s about the journey not the destination. I am also quite certain that in ten years I will make mistakes, but at least I can remember to embrace failure and that expecting perfection at this stage is ludicrous.
- You only get out of it what you put into it. We all know people who say they want to write a book, but they don’t practice writing consistently. To be good at anything you have to practice exactly what you want. That means if you want a loving relationship, you have to practice being a loving partner. If you want more sex in your relationship, you have to practice having sex. Whatever it is that you want to have or be means you have to actually do it. You can’t live in a fantasy about writing a book if you don’t write, or romanticize about having a kind relationship if you aren’t kind to your partner. It has to start with you. YOU have to show up to your craft and to your relationship. You get out of it what you put into it.
- Drop by drop the bucket gets full. Practice a little at a time versus intensive cramming sessions or grand gestures. Daily commitments are more important than large one-offs. If I am unaffectionate on a daily basis, but then stage grand displays of affection every once in a while to show how much he means to me, that won’t add up to much. Similarly, writing a little every day, even an hour a day, will be more effective than trying to write several articles once a month. Small daily acts add up to more than an occasional large act. Consistency is key.
- Even if you don’t feel like it, you can do it anyway. I may not always feel like I love my partner, but I have to show up with love anyway. I may not always feel like writing, but I can do it anyway. What is important is the practice of doing something over and over again (do you see a theme arising?). Every spiritual tradition talks about this kind of discipline—the practice of showing up. Come back to your partner and come back to the page.
- Ask for help. We can’t do it alone. In relationship I need mentors and Glue Couples. In writing I need “accountability buddies” (people to whom I send my writing) and I need writing groups to remember I am not in it alone. Seek inspiration. Read authors and spend time with couples you want to emulate. If you don’t know any inspiring couples, watch Glue films. None of us are in it alone; we just sometimes think we are. It is important to remember we are all in this big boiling human soup together, struggling with the same things. Create a support network to call on when you get stuck in thinking you are in your own unique soup— because you are not.
- Set goals so that you can feel good about reaching them. Take time to assess your relationship with your partner, and check back in and celebrate your accomplishments. It can be as simple as more quality time and following through with “date night” once a month. Set writing goals of either scheduled time or a page count on a given day. Even if I don’t produce something, if I follow through on dedicated and uninterrupted writing time, I can feel good about that accomplishment. Set both small and large goals. Last year I set a goal of three blog posts a week and writing for a large publication. For a period of time I accomplished three posts a week on my blog, and I was invited to write for The Huffington Post. I haven’t followed through with The Huffington Post, but you are now my accountability buddies.
All of these rules are simple, but extremely difficult to follow through on. When I actually listen to my own advice and apply them to my life I experience the rewards tenfold. When I don’t continually consciously choose these principles, I feel badly about myself and have the nagging feeling that I am procrastinating. I have to remember it is a practice, and a cycle of forgetting and remembering, of simply coming back without beating myself up over forgetting — coming back to the page –coming back to my partner.