This article originally appeared on Ritwik Deshpande’s blog, Mutationist.
Society restricts the formal construct of a “student” to mean a person enrolled in some sort of academic program. It is an identity you take on when you’re in school and abandon once you graduate. But the world continues to change at a rapid clip, requiring us to learn new things constantly — this situation requires us to expand the definition of what it means to be a student.
A student is anyone who wants to create new neural pathways by exposing themselves to new information and experiences. You become a student when you feel the desire to do something you can’t and start taking actions to turn that around. To be a student, you have to be a combination of a researcher, a craftsperson, an artist, a manager, and a writer.
Let’s unpack that.
The path to learning complex skills is nonlinear and ambiguous. The most effective compass to help you navigate this ambiguity is your curiosity. It’s hard to figure out where to go next, but an effective way to determine the right direction is to come up with hypotheses and test them.
Start with a statement like: If I use more reverb on every track, my song will sound more immersive. Then try it out and see for yourself if things work that way. Make a note of your results — what worked as expected and what didn’t?
Use your findings to guide future experiments. To support your experiments, you should also constantly look for resources (tutorials, articles, books, talks, etc.) that give you a deeper understanding of what you’re doing.
Being good at something means your output consistently exudes a sense of quality and attention to detail. How you get there is by showing up every day and practicing the fundamentals. This can be difficult, particularly if you have a chaotic mind with a short attention span like I do.
The problem is compounded if you consider that the rewards of working on your craft only become obvious months after you’ve put in the effort. This decoupling of effort and reward makes it hard to create powerful feedback loops to keep you coming back. But your success as a craftsperson depends on your ability to show up even if you don’t feel like it.
Craft is important, but it is only the foundation. Once you have the craft nailed down, you have to figure out what to do with it. “Artistry” is the ability to point your craft in a direction — to expand your audience’s minds by showing them new possibilities, to provide warmth and comfort by letting them know that they’re not alone, or even create a whole new response that we haven’t yet discovered.
You can be the kind of artist that cuts through the bullshit and surfaces fundamental truths about the human experience. Or you can be the kind that creates perfect experiences of escapism. It depends on your personal motivations — what led you to embark on this journey in the first place?
Good managers don’t just allocate resources and impose schedules. They create conditions in which awesome work can happen. The best manager I’ve worked with describes himself as a “shit umbrella.” Managing is as much about creating positive feedback loops and support systems as it is about staying on schedule and tracking progress.
The trick is to not overdo it. It can be very tempting to draft long project plans and get very granular with scheduling tasks. The first step is to acknowledge that no plan will be followed exactly as intended. The second step is to try and identify all the ways in which things won’t work out. The third step is to create mechanisms that pull you back on track if you ever go off the rails.
If you don’t take a moment to pause and reflect on where you’re going and what you’re doing, you run the risk of running in circles. Writing is a great way to formalize new knowledge as you acquire it, and also create resources that can help others who are on their own journeys. Writing can be incredibly difficult if you aim for a finished piece on your first attempt. You can make it easier for yourself by working in different levels of fidelity. The first draft should be an outburst. Just sit there and pour out everything that’s in your mind without any regard for sense or structure. That way, you have a collection of ideas you can start curating. In subsequent drafts, you can refine and arrange these ideas in a way that ensures impact.
Being a student means you’re constantly looking for new information, honing your craft, innovating beyond the fundamentals, creating conditions where you can thrive, and reflecting on your journey. Every day, you’re climbing the mountain towards your goals little by little, sometimes taking a breather, sometimes backtracking from dead ends, sometimes recovering from catastrophe, but climbing regardless. The trek is long and lonely, so it helps to recruit a cheering squad.
Find people who are willing to invest in your journey and provide encouragement. Keep sending them evidence of progress and lean on them if things get too hard. Make sure that the people in your squad understand your goals and values. Don’t let toxic assholes in there. Also make sure that the squad membership remains fluid — account for the fact that people come and go; relationships wax and wane. You may be tempted to fill your squad with friends and family, but try to have some outsiders in there as well.
For music, I use Soundfly (I wrote a full review of my Soundfly experience here) — a service that pairs you with a mentor who listens to your tracks and provides detailed feedback. It’s good to get opinions from an emotional distance.
At the heart of being a student is a desire to be more than what we are. On the way there, we have to question our assumptions and reckon with our limitations. But it’s the process of dismantling our assumptions and working around our limitations that catalyzes growth. And so, we have to keep going, even in the absence of immediate reward or presence of imminent failure. Keep going.
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Soundfly’s community of mentors can help you set the right goals, pave the right path toward success, and stick to schedules and routines that you develop together, so you improve every step of the way. Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor for you!
Ritwik Deshpande is an interaction designer and music student working at the intersection of education and immersive computing.