Yesterday in our weekly faculty mentorship session (our faculty meets weekly for 90 minutes to work on continuous improvement) we talked about an idea that was championed by our colleague, Patrick Finn, in a recent visit to our Edmonton campus. Patrick spoke at length about the development of excellence. This resonated for our team and yesterday we talked more about what that means for our own professional practices, for our students and for the college as a whole.
Something we realized as we discussed this idea was that pursuing excellence is not about big ideas, but rather very small and often counter-intuitive ones.
As we talked, I was reminded of the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.” Mr. Miyagi faces the challenge of coaching Daniel in karate on a nearly impossible timeline. Miyagi uses a number of strange techniques on Daniel that seem counter-intuitive, but, as we discover, these techniques manage to accomplish several goals beyond simple chores. The process becomes clear to Daniel when he is challenged by his coach to fight him (demonstrate his karate skills).
Then, Heiko told a story of when he was coaching snowboarding and one of his students was trying to learn a difficult trick and just couldn’t get the body position he needed to land the trick. In a moment of coaching inspiration, Heiko had his student spend some time bowling (it was something the student was interested in) and work with a master bowling coach. Heiko realized the body position that the student was struggling with matched the body position he was learning in order to bowl better. After a short time, his student was able to use the same body position from his bowling technique to land his snowboarding trick properly.
That then reminded me of a time when I was in theatre school and I was struggling with a song that had some challenging notes for me. We were in a master class and our coach realized my challenge and asked me to literally pick up and carry one of the women in my class (it was a romantic song, so it worked from a premise perspective) while I sang the song. Two things happened. I stopped thinking about vocal technique (which was tripping me up) and it forced me to use my body in a way that allowed more power in my voice (which is supported by your core muscles) than ever before.
What each of these stories revealed is something about excellent coaching. A great coach is able to zero in on the problem that a student is having and do something relatively insignificant to shift their focus and deal with that small thing that getting in the way of the student’s leap closer to excellence.
Interestingly, earlier in the day our Illustration mentor, Emily Chu, had been working with her class on a technique called “blind contour drawing.” Blind contour drawing is a drawing exercise where the illustrator looks only at the subject being drawn and not at the paper. The drawing is completed by never lifting the pencil off the paper. The goal is to draw the contours of the object and work to keep track of your place on the paper. It is a nearly impossible task and one that can be mastered, but takes years of practice. Like the stories above, this simple exercise actually improves an illustrator’s drawing skills.
Excellence lies in the small and seemingly innocuous changes in performance. Having a great coach who thinks about what you need to improve your technique and can also help you get out of your head is key to discovering just how excellent you can be.