ASK THE EXPERTS
Those who have mastered their field are often a great source of insight, and I have talked to many such experts to produce the micromasteries outlined in this book. They often approach their subject from a perspective I'd never have thought about.
When I spoke to former England Schools rugby player and coach of the Nigerian Sevens team Rupert Seldon, he didn't, as I'd expected, suggest spin passing as a micromastery of his sport. He preferred the drop kick, a more technical skill. A Madame Tussauds sculptor told me how modeling a human skull from clay, or even Plasticine, is a micromastery that starts you on the path to producing lifelike sculptures. He explained how you see the "skull beneath the skin" when you look at someone you want to model.
Usually, I combine asking an expert with my own research. Having learned traditional martial arts in Japan, I already knew that the Japanese use kata and self-contained exercises—micromasteries—in most of their teaching.
The Japanese approach to learning—be it martial arts, the tea ceremony, or calligraphy—is different from Western methods of teaching. In the West the tacit assumption is that you either start very young, possibly driven by obsessive parents, or you have an innate talent. Teaching is conceived as a kind of coaching, and if you haven't got the talent you're considered a lost cause.
The Japanese know that talent is rather overrated. More important is your attitude toward learning. So their method of teaching assumes that everyone can learn—whatever their initial level of skill. Instead of hoping that students "pick it up" by osmosis, as is done in the West, micromastery routines are devised so that everyone, even the apparently talentless, can learn.
Drawing is a good case in point. Lots of people swear they "can't draw," but that usually means they can't draw a picture that looks like someone. This is like saying you can't cook when you haven't ever read a recipe book or bought any ingredients. You have to start a few stages further back, with something simple, something humble.
Shoo Rayner—who has illustrated hundreds of children's books— has a website dedicated to helping people learn to draw. When I talked to him he emphasized that all objects can be reduced to simple shapes—cubes, spheres, and cylinders—and these can be even further reduced to lines and curves. He said, "If you can draw a line, you can draw." The next step is to draw straight lines and then curved lines—which is where Zen circles come in.
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The thing I like to look for first is the entry trick, the piece of insider information that elevates your initial attempt above that of the average first-timer and shows you the way into the micromastery. With circle-drawing there are not one but three tricks to get you going.
Holding your pencil, pen, or, ideally, brush midway down its handle is the single easiest way to improve drawing. The further you can move your gripping finger and thumb from the point, the easier you will find it. There will be a miraculous improvement over the crabbed, nib-pinching style many of us have developed from our schooldays. Holding the pen higher up will improve not only all your drawing, but also your handwriting.
You can then try lifting your hand off the table and using your whole arm, rather than just your hand isolated at the wrist, to make the circle. The neurological reason for doing this is that a greater area of the brain is being stimulated, so the learning is deeper and, ultimately, a greater refinement of movement is possible. Classical guitarist David Leisner claimed that he recovered from focal hand dystonia, the repetitive-strain illness that often affects guitarists, by retraining using his whole arm instead of just his wrist. This not only aided his recovery, but also, amazingly, improved his performances.
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Another entry trick, beloved by signwriters who need to get very accurate curves and circles, is to rest your drawing hand on your fist. Make the circle by using a combination of moving the drawing arm while also moving the fist to guide it. You can experiment with how much you move the supporting fist.
Seeing the world in terms of micromasteries makes anything seem possible. Fancy bookbinding? Yoga? Tap dancing or tank driving? All have their micromasteries. It's very liberating—you no longer have to feel trapped in whatever your day job happens to be. You will start, in a small way—a humble way—to get your life back from the idea the world seems to push on us that we should do just one thing all our lives.