mastery


You might argue that the amount of time community mental health therapists spend writing paperwork is unethical, and you would be right in at least two ways: (1) It is an unethical use of tax payer money, paper, and storage space, as much of it is redundant, and (2) it squanders a valuable resource, attention from therapists, on writing, which we are not particularly good or efficient at.

But the worst part for me is that I consider myself a writer of sorts and really care about the quality of my writing, but now spend a large part of my full time week practicing how to write badly. I groan inwardly each time I write something like, “Clinician used psychoeducation about anchoring and adjustment and introduced perspective taking exercises. Client showed understanding of psychoeducation and participated in perspective taking exercises.” And there is no time or economic incentive to make it better.

At least, I tell myself, I did not “utilize” psychoeducation like many of my dear colleagues, but that is small comfort.

It reminds me of why I got out of the small-time freelance record production business. There I was, a songwriter, and the grist for my creative mill was whatever songs someone who could afford my hourly rate brought to me. And those over, and over, and over. Don’t get me wrong–I loved the work and most of what my client’s brought me was good, I just needed to curate what went into my ears more carefully.

The analogy is not perfect, but close. Therapist paperwork writing is not only bad, but emphasizes the least important parts of therapy. A good document of therapy would be more like one of Irvin Yalom’s novels, narrative, interesting, a document of confusion, exploration, courage, inspiration, a document of the development of a mutually beneficial relationship. But this is not what gets you paid. “Clinician challenged cognitive distortions” gets you paid.

And the writing of notes does intrude into therapy occasionally. Occasionally, in session, I have the thought, “How am I going to write this up?” Not a therapeutic thought. Brush it aside, suppress shudder, return attention to client.

One of my supervisors likes to say, “You need to own your charts, you need to love your charts. Your documentation is the only record of what you do.” In an economic and bureaucratic sense, she is exactly right. And I am committed to this career, so I know what I need to do: Fully master the paperwork. Spend as much time as necessary now so that the future me will have perfect case notes, perfect assessments, perfect charts, with no more than the minimal time, stress, and effort spent.  And hope that the bad writing I am practicing makes the minimal impression on my creative brain.

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My dad bought me my first Rubik’s Cube for my 9th birthday, in 1980. I tried to solve it most days for months with nothing like success. I never gave up, but I probably would have eventually, as the method I had come up with, solving one side and then trying to solve adjacent sides, would never work. I had not grasped the logic of the puzzle, that the center pieces never unscramble, so that there is a preordained, final resting place for every piece of the cube, and that you have to solve the pieces, not just the stickers. Without those insights, Rubik’s Cubes are maddening. You solve one sticker and mess up another.

One morning I woke up to see my solved cube sitting on top of a copy of James Nourse’ The Simple Solution to the Rubik’s Cube. That solved cube is still such a vivid memory for me–magic! It turned out that my dad had bought the book for me and then stayed up all night, deciphering its codes and solving the cube. That gave him his fill of cubing–I never saw him touch it again–but I went through the book over and over, learning the method, eventually memorizing enough of it to reliably solve the cube. By mid-1982 I could solve it in just over 3 minutes.

It turns out that while I was doing my 3-minute solves, there were already national speed-cubing competitions. The world record solve at that time was 22.95 seconds, held by a 16-year-old kid in Los Angeles. I did not meet anyone else who could solve one until I met Greg Alkire in 1985. He had actually come up with his own method–a feat of reasoning that is to this day far beyond me. My genius, if you can call it that, is more in the realm of persistence than reasoning.

I bought a new cube in 2007 with no premeditation, and without having played with one for at least 20 years. I saw a display in a department store and thought it would be fun. I started watching people do these super fast solves on YouTube, and soon realized that Nourse’ “simple method” was actually very complicated, that lubricating my cube made everything easier, and that it was much faster (and cooler looking) to use my fingers instead of my wrists to make the moves.

I have been in grad school, so no time for real practice, plus my 39-year-old knuckles start to hurt a bit if I work too long, but I am down to averaging just over a minute in my solves, using Badmephisto‘s beginner method. I am also using F2L, which is (slightly) short for “first two layers,” meaning you solve two layers of the cube at the same time. Here is my most recent average of ten solves on cubetimer.com:

It has been slow progress, but very entertaining and challenging. As Badmephisto says, solving the cube is easy, but solving it quickly is very difficult. It’s this intense mixture of pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, spatial reasoning, and memory. In his great little book, Mastery, Leonard says you have to “love the plateau.” With cubing, I do. I go slowly. I practice looking and thinking ahead. I practice keeping track of where the important pieces are when they are out of sight.

I was slightly tempted to put up a video of myself doing one of these solves, but became too embarrassed. I can love my plateau, but I don’t yet love you seeing my plateau. Speedcubing is like dancing, that way. If you can’t do it, you think anyone who can is amazing. If you can and you watch an intermediate-level dancer or cuber, all you see are the problems. All I see when I watch myself dance is the awkwardness and the neck-jut. When I watch myself cube all I see is how long it takes me to find pieces that I am looking for. And I’m a solid intermediate Lindy Hopper, but still a beginning cuber. I think you have to be doing 40-second-average solves to qualify as intermediate.

Here’s the current world record solve of 6.24 seconds:

Here’s the current world record for a blindfolded solve, at 30.90 seconds:

If you are interested in learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube, I recommend buying a good cube here right off the bat (they  don’t cost much more than a crappy one from a department store), and learning Badmephisto’s beginning method (here for excellent video tutorials), which is both easier and will cause fewer problems than the method that comes in a new cube package when you eventually ramp up to more sophisticated methods.

Our check-out at the end of group supervision last night was naming our “guilty pleasures.” My cohort-mates mostly talked about TV shows they were watching, plus some fiction reading. When it was my turn, they shot down every single extracurricular activity I offered. Not one qualified as a guilty pleasure. Here’s the list:

Reading Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz

Listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing on audiobook

Listening to This American Life, Radiolab, and a couple other podcasts

Recording Reanna a cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Dancing every week

I think they might have given me dancing if I hadn’t tried their patience with the other stuff first. I didn’t think to say writing for my blog, which is probably the pleasure I feel the guiltiest about, but they probably wouldn’t have given me that either.

It doesn’t seem like I have time to watch TV. I don’t even have a TV, come to think of it, and I haven’t figured out how to get TV shows on the internet. I’m watching a little of the jazz doc each night as I brush my teeth, but it’s hard to imagine watching multiple seasons of TV shows, like my cohort-mates are. It would take a major shift in lifestyle. I did listen to Murakami’s (excellent) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last spring, but only while I was driving, so it took 15 weeks to finish.

I feel conflicted about my lack of guilty pleasures. I’d like to have that kind of laid-back lifestyle. I want to be more relaxed. This summer–this next four weeks of this summer–is my only even partly unstructured time before I graduate next June. And who knows after that? I’ll have loans to pay off.

On the other hand, it doesn’t sound relaxing to add something to my schedule! Plus, I like the stuff that I’m doing, and I’m working on wrapping my head around something with infinite depth. When I finished my two-year record-production program in the 1990s, my teacher Josh Hecht said, “This is a deep subject that you have scratched the surface of, but you now know what you need to be able to do. The next step is figuring out a way to do it for 14 hours a day, every day. In 20 years or so, you’ll be very good at it.” That was his lifestyle, and it made him an excellent record producer. He worked all day, had no time for non-audio entertainment, read only the two very best trade magazines, participated in only the two very best trade organizations. He slept five hours a night.

This is a path of mastery like Erickson’s 10,000 hour rule; to get good at any complex endeavor, you have to put in about 10,000 hours. Being a therapist certainly qualifies as a complex endeavor! The catch is, weeks after Josh told us how to become a good record producer, he got very ill and was forced to take a long vacation–his first vacation in decades, I believe. I think that was the point my supervisor was making about guilty pleasures; this is a demanding career in many ways. How do I master it while maintaining my health, motivation, and clarity?