I want to write again.
For over a month, I have been living in France without publishing a single blog post. But why? My mind is drowning in a flood of ideas for articles. There is no lack of inspiration or content, no one stopping me from uploading a text. Back in the US, I loved working on my blog. Converting my ideas to written words brought me joy, it made me proud and ended up inspiring me even more. It can’t be a fundamental motivational issue. But what else?
The only explanation I come up with: I just haven’t done it. I just haven’t sat down for two hours, written, proof-read and published and article. That’s it. Not a very substantial explanation, that might be true, but I feel like this is part of the most basic of all feedback loops in life. The spiral of doing, as I like to call it. Today, in this article, we’re not talking about culture, my favourite subject to write about. Instead, I want to pause, breathe in, and restart the blog by sharing this simple idea about the power of doing.
Making our brain adjust
In past blog posts, I have often referred to our brain as some highly malleable substance: If we’re exposed to foreign accents, we tend to adjust our own pronunciation. In new cultural environments, we’re starting to imitate the quirks. For instance, I have started eating baguette and cheese after meals, even though bread and cheese used to be a whole meal by itself in Germany. One could conclude that we are just highly adaptive beings – a claim, I unfortunately cannot believe in. Too many humans are apparently afraid of change and are reluctant to adjust their lives despite all urgency to do so.
What is it then, that made me start writing blog articles regularly last year? What is it that even made me like the process? I guess it’s the same thing that makes us good at sports or even at math: Simply doing it. While it was a huge effort at the beginning, my writing had become faster and better every week. So easy, right? You’re probably getting bored, because I’m stating the obvious. But so often, people don’t seem to understand.
French language teaching is a great example. My friend Augustin told me how he was impressed when attending a high school English class in Austria: Teacher and students wouldn’t exchange a single German word for the full 50 minutes. Despite not being statistically significant, this case study explains why French people admire German speakers for their English so much. At the same time, they often avoiding speaking any foreign languages, probably because they just haven’t done it enough, especially during their high school classes.
Another example is picking up habits, like getting up when your alarm sounds in the morning. Not very obvious for someone who has been snoozing alarms for years. When you start leaving your bed for good at the first sound of your alarm, it is rough at first. The urge to stay in bed for some more minutes is overwhelming. But the more often you do it, the easier it gets. Instead of pushing the debate about “being a morning person”, we should make this a discussion about practice. Either you’ve done it enough, or you haven’t. The spiral of doing does the rest.
When the spiral spins downwards
The canonical inverse of the spiral of doing (as a math student would express it), is the spiral of not doing. Again, this is obvious: If we don’t practice, we’ll get worse. However, we tend oversee the implications of this principle. Just as I was wondering for weeks what it is that has stopped me from posting blog articles. Thinking has rarely solved such issues: I just haven’t done it, that’s all. I haven’t done it for a long time and my last regular writing streak had stopped in January. So many skills have gotten lost that I was not even aware I had acquired: Having an inspiring idea that can be shared in 1000 words, organizing it in paragraphs, coming up with stories to illustrate it. Everything the spiral of doing has taught me, the spiral of not-doing has made rust over the last months.
Fortunately, there is hope for our rusty writing, speaking and other skills: We will pick them up much faster the second time. This is the reason why I so strongly encourage everyone to just speak the languages they have learned in their lives. If you haven’t practiced your Spanish for ten years, you can unbury your beautiful skill much faster than you think. Just try and promise not to stop after five minutes.
The beauty about the spiral of doing
What excites me so much about this idea is its simplicity and its potential to make us better at what we are doing. When I joined of the speech team at Northwestern University last year, I had no clue how to come up with a 7 minute speech in 30 minutes, while also looking up sensible sources for my claims on the internet. Thanks to practice and coaching, I eventually managed to do it, acquiring other important skills on the way, like reading American newspapers quickly or finding ad-hoc answers to political questions. Looking back, I’m very grateful for the people that have made me hold these many speeches.
This brings us to the key question: How can we make ourselves do things often enough to make the spiral work? To me, there are two key points.
The first one is exposure: Putting yourself into an environment that will force you to do certain things. If my main life goal were to consume more baguettes, I would move to France where most bakeries don’t even give you another choice. A more serious example is learning languages: Living in France (or Québec, of course) and talking to natives daily is the most effective way to master the beautiful “language of Molière”.
My second suggestion to get started about doing is to consciously embarrass yourself. When writing my first blog post a year ago, I proofread it at least thrice and delayed its publication several times. I was scared, even sure, I would embarrass myself. But so often, our self-perception is flawed, or the consequences don’t really matter. If you didn’t like my text today, in the worst case, you’ll unsubscribe and never read this blog again. But be aware that you’ll be missing out. Because ten articles down the road, they will be much better.