Mastering the Basics of the Thing You Do

a salt and pepper shaker made of glass photo by sean buvalaSo, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s new and exciting in the world of the thing that you do, but have you mastered the basics? Was it Picasso who is credited for saying that said we should know the rules like pros so that we can break them like artists?

Salty.

There is an old (aren’t they all?) folktale that appears in many different forms. In essence, it’s “Why Meat Loves Salt,” but it has many titles and variants.

In the story, a king asks his three daughters to describe how much they love him. Daughters One and Two give some type of flowery, prosaic response. These satisfy the king. Daughter Three, however, simply says, “I love you as meat loves salt.” Pretty basic, Three, don’tcha think?

The king sputters, moans, and otherwise carries on about Three’s basic response. No one is going to compare a king to something as lowly as salt, you can bet. Three is somehow shunned.

Time carries on. Eventually, for some reason, daughter Three has the chance to serve the king a meal made without any salt. “Eww, it’s awful,” says the king. Three produces a container of salt, sprinkles it on the food and, boom, the king gets good food and Learns His Lesson™.

Essentials.

Salt is basic. Pepper is right there with it for most recipes. These two condiments are on nearly every table everywhere I go.

I teach about storytelling and public-speaking for adult audiences. I teach about publishing. Each of those three areas has salt-and-pepper level basics that need to be learned, understood, and practiced to be competent. What is it that you do? Does it have “basics” that need to be embraced? I know that you know what these basics are.

Currently, the Internet makes it seem that everyone can be an expert on whatever it is that they’ve just discovered. Staying with the seasoning analogy, everyone can now be Umami powder. Too many skip to Umami. However, they leave the basics behind. Without the salt and pepper, we get mouthfuls of mushroomy, earthy-dirt umami flavor.

I see people become storytellers who still can’t use a microphone properly. I see speakers who are still using “start with a joke” techniques for public presentations. I hear stories from storytellers that never learned how to edit their thoughts for clarity. It’s as if we’re chock full of mushroom powder and we’re low on salt and pepper.

Season.

So, what do you do to get back to the essentials of salt and pepper in your work?

  1. Make a list of the most basic components of your work.
    What are the top must-haves in order to carry out your work? For example, “speaking loudly enough to be heard” comes before “quit my job and start touring open-mic events.”
  2. Fearlessly evaluate your comfort level with each of the components you listed in number one above.
    Give a grade of your choosing to each area. Make a priority list of the basic, salt-level, things you need to fix.
  3. Seek out coaching and classes with experts who can answer your essential questions.
    This is much harder to do than it would appear. Coaches, for every art and situation, are everywhere. Many themselves don’t know the basics. I’ve been to workshops where the leader gives really weak answers to basic question asked. I’d urge you to find a coach that speaks from direct experience, who can help you get the foundational work you need. Find a coach or workshop that has both salt and umami powder on their table.

Bonus

I understand that some who read this note may be experienced in their respective fields and may no longer feel the need to review basics. I will leave you with this thought. Pepper loses its flavor. The peppercorn oils will dry up and become flavorless. Maybe your own oils have dried up a bit? Do you need some fresh pepper in your shaker? Go on and take a beginner’s workshop from time-to-time. You might be reminded of something basic and still flavorful.

TL;dr

There’s nothing wrong with umami, but you need to be sure the salt and pepper are there, otherwise it’s just fungal. There’s nothing wrong with progressive ideas in art and communication, but you need to be sure you have the basics learned and applied. To be a solid speaker and storyteller, know the rules before you break them.