Optimism for millennials: ‘Go teach yourself’

Andy Frakes

Some of the best bits we learn are found outside the classroom

There’s a short story I read a long time ago about students in a pottery class. The teacher divided that class into two groups; one group was to make one perfect pot for their class grade, the other group was graded only upon the quantity of pots they could make.

At the end of the semester, the teacher saw a curious thing—the very best pots had been made by the students who had been going for quantity.

They had the practice and repetition to learn from their own mistakes and improve each time, while the students carefully crafting one pot at a time viewed each one as a special occasion that might be the peak of their art career.

The excerpt, of course, is from “Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It may be generic-sounding, with buzzwords lurking around every turn in the conversations this will spur, but it’s worth some thought. “Art & Fear” is a quick read full of insight. This article, however, is not a book review. It’s about me and you.

We’re not all trying to be world-class clay pot shapers over here, you might say. And I understand that. You all—and by that, I mean to include myself—are trying to be short story writers, accountants, photographers, designers, salespeople and so on.

What I’ve learned in the past year, and more so recently, is that the idea of practice making perfect (or better) is both underrated and broadly applicable. It’s often dismissed as a childhood adage that we’re spoon-fed to get us to do our homework, but really, it becomes more than that.

The best photographer, within reason, isn’t necessarily someone who studies theory all darn day and goes out to snap the “perfect” sunset shot. It’s the photographer who has their phone out to the point where it’s annoying, the person who goes everywhere with a heavy camera around their neck because that’s how one captures the humanity around them and truly learns their trade.

Want to be a good photographer? Take a ton of photos, I was told. Learn what works, get a feel for it. The pottery students did it, and nowadays, film is cheap. There are fewer and fewer excuses as resources become more available to us, from free online lectures to PDF copies of textbooks.

Natalie Heise, a senior graphic design student, says that while she has learned a lot from experience and practice on her own efforts, there are basics and fundamentals that one simply must go to class for.

“A lot of things I can do now, I used to have to look up how to do all the time,” Heise said. “I still use the Internet as a reference, but I’ve retained a lot more information just from doing the same thing over and over again and either applying it to projects or at work.”

In another few years, maybe just in another few months, we’ll all be facing a starkly-rationed job market. There will be many applicants, and many jobs, but not quite enough, as these things go.

To score you will need to have a killer resume and portfolio, a nice suit, and manners to spare. You can take classes on interviewing, read about the perfectly-constructed resume and drop $1,000 at Brooks Brothers—or you can sit with your roommate once a week and practice. Because practice might not make you perfect but it will make you better, and with the right moxy, better than the sucker who’s interviewing after you.

Last weekend I sat through a plethora of seminars in a Raddison Blu conference center; buzzwords  filled the air. Downtown Minneapolis wasn’t exactly teeming with student journalists but we were out in full force to be sure; blazers blazing, shoes shined, notepads open.

I looked around in the first session and got scared for a minute because a lot of these try-hard characters would be applying for jobs I wanted a year from now. And I hadn’t taken jack for notes.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when post-graduation employment is a hit-or-miss endeavor and statistics lean toward serving beverages rather than publishing masterful novels, especially for those of us venturing away from STEM degrees and the grad-school track. It’s going to take some real self-assurance.

With these lessons in mind, though, I have a newfound confidence that if I—if we—keep up the effort and continue to invest time in the right places, the transition from college to real adulthood will be minor turbulence in the arc of our life stories.