that’s amore

You might have noticed that I didn’t send an essay last week. No, I wasn’t being lazy. I’m never overwhelmed and I never procrastinate, either. The truth is, I was engaged in a period of quiet contemplation.

Impressed? You should be. In fact, you might even say I was taking a sabbatical from my newsletter. (Stefan Sagmeister and I take sabbaticals now and then. Deal with it.) It doesn’t matter what it is you make or how crass, commercial, or outright bizarre it might be: If you stop doing it for a “sabbatical,” everything you’ve ever done in your life achieves retroactive profundity. Taking a sabbatical—or, at least, announcing that you will be on social media or, even better, on stage at a TEDx event—is like dying and getting to attend your own funeral. I highly encourage it.

(Here’s hoping Nic Cage never realizes the power of the sabbatical. We need movies like this one now more than ever.)

In the current arms race between designers, writers, and Silicon Valley product managers all loudly practicing what you might call conspicuous contemplation—our bible is How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—I’m coming out ahead, winning at the art of looking like I’m not trying to win. Have I humble-bragged about quitting Facebook lately? Those of us who quit Facebook are very wise.

The only real problem with quitting Facebook is that after the initial announcement—which makes you look like a combination of Pema Chödrön and Warren Buffett—you can’t rack up any more too-wise-to-chase-success-yet-still-successful points from your social network. If only there were a tool for sharing these kinds of announcements on a regular basis so that people I know could continually be alerted about my astonishingly virtuous and ascetic feats of self-care? (Oh right, I’m still on LinkedIn.)

The only way to get ahead nowadays is to visibly stop trying to get ahead. You have to treat yourself like a delicate little hothouse creativity orchid sage and then let the world know you’re doing it. We need acclaim and respect for our lack of interest in either, but we also need enough space and alone time to recharge our souls, which apparently hold their charge about as well as a five-year-old Nissan Leaf.

Despite being exiled to camp every summer, a.k.a. “Lord of the Flies, Catskills edition,” I never really learned to swim. So, a few months ago, in a fit of middle-aged self-actualization, I decided to sign up for lessons. While I’ve read and written about skill acquisition before, it still surprises me to have to go through the same “stages of learning” every time:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

It’s easy to get the idea that knowing how learning works will somehow make it easier to persevere. It does not. Only bullheadedness does the trick.

After two months of weekly lessons, I count myself firmly in the “conscious incompetence” category. As much as I abhor schlepping to a cold pool in the dead of winter to flop around like a child surrounded by human dolphins effortlessly gliding through lap after lap, there’s nothing for it but to keep doing it until I get it right and then, as cheerleading coach Monica Aldama advocates in the Netflix docu-series Cheer, keep doing it until I can’t do it wrong.

Mr. Rogers swam regularly. It’s supposed to be great exercise, especially if, like me, you have knees made of crêpe paper and Elmer’s glue. As I’ve pieced together my freestyle stroke, I’ve started wondering whether I could feasibly maintain a regular swim schedule. The blog SwimCompetitive advises the following:

A good guideline would be about 20-30 lengths for beginners, around 40-50 lengths for intermediate swimmers and roughly 60 lengths for advanced swimmers.

This is where the progression of learning gets toxic in every category: swimming, writing, everywhere. Mr. Rogers only swam twenty-five lengths a day, and he considered that “a long, long swim.” Now I’m told that I won’t even be “intermediate” until I’m swimming forty or more.

I can swim the length of the pool about five times (with breaks) before I feel like dying. So now I’m a pre-beginner, lower than low. If you make a habit of reading writing advice, you’ve had the experience many times of having the starting baseline placed well above where you currently are. It gets worse:

Swimmers who are at the beginner levels should aim to swim two to three times a week. More experienced swimmers should make it their goal to swim at least four to five times a week. Many competitive and elite level swimmers train about five to ten times a week.

In other words, I’m not even a real swimmer until I’m at the pool four or five times a week. And if I want to be “competitive,” I should be swimming multiple times per day. It’s exhausting to contemplate. (There I go again with the contemplation. I can’t help it.) This is where we get caught up in our writing. We receive this very rigid idea of what it means to be a “professional” that is totally at odds with the necessary mindset to explore our creativity and improve our skills. Professional is always positioned in sharp contrast with amateur, but guys, what does “amateur” even mean?

Hint: it has something to do with yesterday’s holiday.

Amateur derives from the Latin verb amare, “to love.” Amateurs do it for the love of the thing. When did that become bad? How are you supposed to get better at doing something you don’t love doing, at least some of the time? Professional also derives from a Latin verb, profiteri, but that one’s obvious: to profess. A professional makes a kind of promise to someone else that they can get the job done. I’m not sure why that takes the love out of the equation, but we do tend to get tangled up in our egos when we’re writing for others. A true professional should simply take the ego out of it.

This week, if you’re a professional, bring that Valentine’s Day romance back into your writing. If you’re an amateur, relish in the ardor you and your writing have for each other. And if you’re a pre-beginner, get in the pool and do some laps. Give it time. You’ll learn to love it.

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