John Keats On Creativity: How To Become A Master At Resistance Practice

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In 1810, at only 14 years old, John Keats, his two brothers and his sister, became orphans in London when their mother, Frances, died of Tuberculosis. (Others would argue her cause of death was a broken heart; grief-stricken by the loss of her husband, Thomas, in a horse riding accident six years earlier). 

In the custody of their grandmother (and later two legal guardians Richard Abbey and John Sandell), Keats dealt with his grief by refocusing on a pastime he’d grown fond of in his last few terms at school: poetry.

It had become an obsession for Keats; so much that in his leisure time, he’d return to the school library and read as many books as he could.

Keats wanted to write himself, but without the instruction of a mentor, he struggled.

Instead, he taught himself the only way he knew how: reading all the works of the greatest poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

He modelled their poetic form and style; imitated their stanzas and tweaked them to develop a voice of his own.

He loved it and committed to what Nick Saban would call The Process.

At 21, Keats (now a licensed physician) made a controversial decision and one that would shock his peers: he would commit his life to writing poetry. That was his life’s task and he would find a way to do it for a living.

The Challenge

To complete his demanding (yet self-imposed) apprenticeship, Keats set himself a challenge: to write a very long poem. 4,000 words to be precise.

He even gave himself a deadline: seven months. The goal required him to write 50 lines a day until he had his first draft.

Keats wrote for months, however, three quarters of the way through, he hit an obstacle and one he hadn’t anticipated: he hated the poem he was writing.

He felt despondent; he’d come so far and was so underwhelmed with his poem, but he refused to quit. He willed himself to complete the work and met the deadline he’d set, but as dissatisfied as was, Keats valued all the lessons he’d learnt from his experience.

He’d learnt how to overcome his writer’s block. How to write daily; a habit that helped him tighten his poems and write with fierce tenacity. And how to critique his poems with a cold eye. No longer did he fear “failure”. He embraced it. He was learning.

He was becoming a Master.

Resistance Practice

We all want to master something in our lives, be it our career, our passions or even our emotions, but in our quest for Mastery, we must prepare ourselves for resistance; obstacles that challenge us and prevent us from moving towards what we want.

These obstacles, much like apprenticeships, can be self-imposed. We can experience apathy, fear and self-doubt, but with a willingness to exceed our self-perceived limitations, we can begin to ascend any plateau we hit – once we know how.

That how, is resistance practice.     

In his book, Mastery, Robert Greene describes resistance practice as:

“[Going] in the opposite direction of all your natural tendencies when it comes to practice”. [1]

“First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself” Greene explains.

Self-help will comfort you in moments of insecurity; “I’m okay, you’re okay” and so on, but on the path to Mastery, “okay” doesn’t cut it.

You must become your own worst critic; not to be negative or to compare yourself to others, but to help you identify your weaknesses as objectively as you can (as if it were through the eyes of a critic) and improve them.

This is what New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss calls “hate-proofing”: Responding to chinks in the armour – misquotes in copy, misspellings in a presentation, flaws in your character – and correcting them before critics can exploit them. 

You recognise your weaknesses; blind spots and noticeable differences between you and the Masters you’re modelling. You ask yourself questions other dare not to ask like: “Why aren’t I where I want to be?”

This can be painful, but not as painful as what neglecting this practice can lead to: disappointment and even worse – unrealised potential.

“Second” Greene continues “you resist the lure of easing up on your focus”.

You raise your standard and refuse to settle for less than what you believe you deserve. Think of it as a code of conduct or a Commander’s Intent; a mission statement that governs the behaviours necessary to become a Master.

You develop routines that turn your strengths into weaknesses and set arbitrary deadlines to meet, whether there’s consequences or not.

American basketball Hall of Famer Bill Bradley, once described as slow and gawky, would put ten-pound weights in his shoes to strengthen his legs and give him more spring to his jump when practicing. [2]

Author Chris Guillebeau, founder of the popular blog The Art of Non-Conformity, committed to posting a new article every Monday and Thursday – a schedule he’s honoured for five years.

Guillebeau commented in a recent interview: “[as a creative] the streak is important [. . .] it’s about, I’m going to commit to doing this”. [3]

A Master

With the lessons he learnt from his self-apprenticeship, between the years of 1818 and 1819 (and before his untimely death), Keats produced some of the most memorable poems in the English language. He had become, what historians would call, a Master.

Commit to resistance practice and become a Master like Keats; soon enough you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labour and others will marvel at the apparent ease in which you accomplished your goals. TC mark

Sources:

[1] Greene, R. (2012) Mastery, London: Penguin.

[2] Bradley, B. (2002) Basketball Hall of Famers, New York: The Rosen Publishing Group Inc.

[3] Chase Jarvis. 2013. Chris Guillebeau | Chase Jarvis LIVE | Chase Jarvis. [Online]. [Accessed 22 November 2011]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1AjhaFVXWE

Acknowledgements:

Robert Green for introducing me to John Keats and Resistance Practice.

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