How We Learn
The Three Phases of Everything
If you feel like you’re drowning in work, just remember that this is exactly where you should be.
And we want to help.
Phase 2 was founded specifically for designers who are striving, working, practicing, and struggling to become better.
There are innumerable resources available for casual observers and those who may one day become designers. There are millions of books, websites, posters, prints, crafts and creations that can inspire a young designer to learn more. A simple image search in Google will return a near-infinite supply of motivational imagery.
Moreover, there exists a vast library of resources for lifelong and expert designers—books by Steven Heller or Frank Chimero, websites with Jessica Helfand or Michael Bierut, and publications by Milton Glaser or Stefan Sagmeister. These are all wonderfully inspirational; however, they tend to assume the reader is already an expert. They expect their audience to know the difference between font and typeface, or how Futura differs from Franklin Gothic, or why Paul Rand is considered a modern designer even though he died nearly two decades ago.
Phase 2 is dedicated to filling this gap.
Phase 1: Imagination
Imagination occurs before we even make an attempt to learn. When we find something we like, we think, I can do that! I just need to practice! Our childhood is spent almost entirely in Phase 1. We imagine all of the different things we can be: firefighters, fairies, doctors, drivers, dogs and cats, police officers, basketball players, He-Man, astronauts, warriors, witches, wizards, and waiters. Regardless of any inherent talent, we simply don’t have the skill set to accomplish … well, almost anything.
Let’s use kung fu as an example (because, let’s be honest, kung fu is a great example). We watched kung fu movies when we were young and thought, I can do that! They’re just punching and kicking! I just need to practice! Practice at that young age typically meant punching the air or kicking our brother. But, of course, our punching and kicking only barely resembled the masters we saw on film. This is true with everything we’ve ever learned and is the essence of Phase 1.
Phase 2: Work
Work happens when we learn that doing a thing is infinitely more difficult than thinking about doing a thing. Phase 2 is when we sometimes feel like we’re drowning; when we often give up; when we discover our passions; when we decide what we want to spend our time doing. Thus, we begin the actual education process; we learn details about the thing we had an interest in.
We discovered quickly that kung fu is complicated. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about punching and kicking. Eyes level and open! Feet aligned and pointed in the right direction! Knees bent! Back straight! Arms up! Hands firm (but not tight)! Turn with your hips! Spin through your center! Kick high! Punch straight! Elbows in! Shoulders down! Watch your opponent! Commit to your lines! Breathe! Practice, practice, practice!
Then, all of a sudden, you’re drowning in information.
When we put in the work, education begins to take on real meaning. More importantly, we discover our passions. We must decide to either continue despite the challenges, or set our passions aside. If we don’t love the challenge, we give up.
Ira Glass, host of Public Radio International’s This American Life, discussed the gap between our imagination and our ability:
What nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me—is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
Phase 3: Expertise
Expertise is the culmination of our hard work, when we have trained and practiced and dedicated ourselves to a task until it becomes as easy as we first imagined. Through our efforts in Phase 2, we find Phase 3.
After years of training and practice, Bruce Lee had become a master of kung fu. Many of the basic things he imagined when he was younger had become second nature. His skill had approached, and in many ways surpassed, his imagination. Unfortunately, the majority of people who attempt to learn these same skills did not stick with it. At some point, either they found the work had become too exhausting or they discovered that they simply did not have a genuine passion it.
Expertise isn’t a gift; it’s a reward for commitment. The reward is discovering that the things that drive us are much more than an expert skill set. The reward is in the discovery of the passions that drive us toward perfection. In fact, one of the wonderful ironies about Phase 3 is that when you discover your passion, you inevitably imagine new skills to learn. You then work to learn them, achieve a level of expertise in doing so, imagine new skills, rinse, repeat. If you have discovered your passion, you enter a loop that drives you, focuses your efforts, and pushes you further.
Only then can you truly say, “I know kung fu.”