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What Looks Easy Requires Discipline

"Creative work is first prepared for and only then realized. Improvisation requires preparation; spontaneity requires preparation. The very ability to approach a blank canvas or computer screen is contingent on the artist's inner preparations, contingent on the alignment of his heart, mind, and hands in the direction of his task. The artist who does not get ready will never be ready: an artist must prepare like any ardent apprentice to achieve mastery."

--Affirmations for Artists by Eric Maisel

I was in my late 20’s when I attended graduate school at the Leadership Institute of Seattle. The program was innovative and experiential and attracted a lot of bright, intuitive students. Many came because they wanted to make a difference. Many, like me, were impatient to make our marks on the world. We expected to do well.

We didn’t know as much as we thought we did. We understood, as Greg Johanson and Ron Kurtz say in their book, Grace Unfolding, that “those who are best at what they do are not bound by the axioms, rules and limits of their fields, but allow themselves to be directed by their open, intuitive imaginations.” That was us--ready to break the rules, to be guided by our intuitive sense of what would work. What we didn’t see was a principle vital to the mastery of any discipline—freedom to innovate requires minds “primed . . . by studying widely and deeply.”

The person who made this principle clear to me is a man named Ron Short. A faculty member at LIOS during my time there, Ron created a simple model that illustrates the importance of discipline to freedom. He helped me see that instinct and good intentions are not enough. He has given me permission to create my own version, which preserves, I think, the spirit of the original. It appears at the bottom of this post.

If you have ever watched a great musician, you’ve seen how effortless they make it look. They are spontaneous, interpreting the music in their own unique way, making it soar in a way no one has done before. Yet that freedom is the result of hours and hours of dedicated practice. Without that discipline, the intuitive imagination has no vehicle for expression. It’s the difference between art and throwing a few blobs of paint on a canvas. True freedom requires spontaneity and discipline.Spontaneity without discipline produce chaos. Listen to a child sit down to the piano without music lessons or practice, and what you’re likely to hear is a discordant mess. Taking on a new job or changing careers requires discipline and practice before you master it. When I tell people I'm a coach, they often tell me they think they belong in that field because people tend to come to them for help. They confuse helping with the discipline of coaching. It takes years of practice and study to coach well.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, discipline without spontaneity, the result is a rigid adherence to the rules—getting all the notes right, but the music has no heart or soul. When one is disciplined without spontaneity, one is lost when the unexpected happens. Think of organizations or people mired in the rules or in past ways of thinking.Finally, when someone is new to a field or task, they have neither discipline nor spontaneity. They are dependent on a master or a set of instructions or a guide of some kind. They have to learn the basics-- scales and fingering, before they can make any kind of music.This model has stuck with me for almost 30 years. It helps me remember when I learn something new to be patient—that there are disciplines I need to master before I can soar. It helps me remember that in this coaching field I love, there is always the discipline of learning something new, of paying attention to process, of maintaining balance so I can be a “centered presence” to my clients. It helps me advise others who are stuck or impatient with themselves or impatient with learning. And it helps me remember to be patient with others who are just beginning to learn.

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