On Mastery and Breadth in a Creative Practice

Innovative architecture requires masterful skills as well as a breadth of knowledge about social context, human behavior, and structural issues. (Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles)

Whether to specialize and focus on mastery, or to seek breadth and explore multiple directions, is a recurring issue in a creative practice. Valid arguments are made for both approaches.

Musicians spend hours practicing to attain skills.

Mastery is valued for the obvious growth of skills that come with ongoing attention over a sustained period of time. Creative practices improve in quality in this way. We hear that Mastery takes at least 10,000 hours. That is a lot of time and attention. Nuance and subtlety become more pronounced with advanced skills. A certain level of functional skill is needed before one can achieve results that transcend the ordinary. Without time invested pushing development of manual, visual, and conceptual skills, we are unlikely to achieve a level of proficiency that will carry our work beyond the obvious. Distractions with different media, or other creative directions, can dilute our rate of growth.

Mastery of wine making includes years of repetition and skill development

In addition, time with our area of expertise is required to be able to envision work that explores complex concepts. Intellectual concerns, context, and content can be developed once we surpass the need to explore basic “how to” skills. We learn to “think in paint”, for example, before being able to ponder and push to complex personal or social concerns that are expressed through the medium of paint.

But, breadth of experience, with multiple media or directions of creative exploration, has inherent growth value as well. This type of experimentation develops an understanding of the numerous ways to approaching a question or problem. What some might dismiss as “aimless wandering” along the journey is not a waste of time. Wandering helps us see options, understand the limits of one medium or direction, and become aware of what other choices might offer. Each direction “Informs” others, they are often not completely distinct. The possibilities and implications of a solution may be impacted in ways that someone with more versatile experience can anticipate. In addition, there is a flexibility of thinking that comes with an understanding of various solutions.

Las Setas de Sevilla, another example of innovative architecture that results from exploring new directions.

One of the hallmarks of a creative mind is the ability to combine unrelated thoughts, solutions, and ideas into new ways of approaching a problem.  Without an understanding of diverse approaches it is rare for “unrelated solutions” to come together in our thought process. The more we know about more things, the more likely we are to have innovative ideas. These ideas contribute to new and exciting solutions. For example, a scientist’s lifetime of research may result in a discovery that finds application in unforeseen ways. Two seemingly disconnected directions converge. It is the justification of “research for research’s sake”.

Innovations in clothing design, and creative display design, at Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art.

Balance over time, defined individually, seems to be the answer. The learning process requires phases of heightened inquiry, immersion in skills development, time for evaluation, followed by renewed inquiry. This leads to mastery. However, the creative process, which often mirrors the learning process, requires pursuit of tangents, asking seemingly “unrelated” questions, trying something new, asking “What if…”, and the freedom to ponder how things might be changed. This leads to innovation, and new solutions.

Creative use of space, light, form, and structure at Sagrada Familia by Gaudi.

While working with creative individuals I see both impulses at work. There is a rhythm of intense focus in a given direction toward skill development, balanced by new interests and questions from surprising directions. As you develop your creative journey embrace both, and listen to a voice that suggests exploring something new. 

One thought on “On Mastery and Breadth in a Creative Practice

  1. I tend to agree that a combination of focused, devoted attention and exploration of new ideas (new media or new ways of using the same medium) aids the creative process. Both techniques help one learn to be creative. Of course prolonged, dedication to pushing a single medium or style forward is extremely valuable. But I remember my professors in art school forcing me to work different ways, uncomfortable ways, unnatural ways. “These are all separate arrows for your quiver,” they said. “You may not need or even want them now, but if you develop basic competence today you’ll have those arrows 10 or 15 years down the road when you do need or want them.” After graduating from art school I ended up working in finance where, ironically, I repeatedly drew upon my art training to visualize problems and solutions – in other words to be creative in that realm.

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