Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

If you recognize this mantra, you may know it comes from marksmanship training. The idea is that it is better to move slowly and not have any hitches or unexpected bumps, rather than to hurry and have a less predictable outcome.

Another way to phrase this is

You don’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it twice?

There are lots of obvious applications for this philosophy in technology, but I’ve been dealing with it in a much more tactile realm – handwriting. I’m one of the cusp generation that got taught cursive and typing in school. I obviously type much more quickly than I handwrite – most people do, or we wouldn’t have invented typewriters. My kids got some very minimal cursive education, but mostly so they could read it, not write it. No one is grading their penmanship and most of their assignments are turned in on Google Docs. When I was learning cursive, my teacher told me, and I believed, that it was because it was faster than printing.

In the last month or so, I fell down a hobby rabbithole and took up fountain pens. The DevOpsDays Vancouver people gave out a lovely writing set as a speaker gift – proper fountain pen, ink, high-quality notebook. I found out that what the nerds on the internet have been saying is true – writing with a fountain pen is a significantly different experience than a ballpoint or even a rollerball. Fountain pens finally made the point of cursive writing make sense to me.

It turns out that some methods of communication are tuned to specific tools.

Who knew, right? So I spent all of my grade school cursive time frustrated because cursive didn’t feel any faster to me, and I would get lost in the middle of a letter or a word, and aaaaargh. Which has made it really funny to take up learning not just “how does a fountain pen even work”, but also “Spencerian Penmanship” (which, the purists would like to inform you, is not calligraphy). It turns out that 10 year old me had a few compounding problems:

  1. Not enough time/practice to gain mastery. I’m a notoriously slow learner of physical skills. It took me 3 years to learn to ride a bike. So learning time that was probably enough for my peers was not enough for me.
  2. Attention problems meant that I would literally lose focus in the middle of a word, or forget how to form letters, or try to move faster than my muscles were prepared to go.
  3. I did not find it intrinsically rewarding.

Now that I’m an adult, and I can afford not only the proper tools (relatively cheap), but tools that I find exciting and fun (less cheap), I feel more rewarded. I am not trying to turn in a homework assignment, I’m just learning a skill, so the time and accuracy penalties don’t apply. Unsurprisingly, I have better handwriting when I slow down. And as hobbies go, this one is really easy to pick up and put down, even more than knitting.

I also have learned years of skills in how to teach myself things, how to self-correct and do mindful improvement. Because I spent so many years as a solo writer, I had to learn to look at my own work, iterate, and improve. That basic skill now serves me for all sorts of things in my life. As a result, I now understand the value of drill and practice. Even if it’s not fun.

Handwriting practice sheet

The first thing to do is draw lines

I used to feel bad about my hobbies – sometimes I’ll get really into something, and get all the equipment to do it, and take Craftsy classes and and and… and then a few months later, I’ll drop it. I would punish myself when the next passion came around. “Remember embroidery? You have all the equipment and you only ever finished 2.5 projects. No, you don’t get to do the fun thing!”. I’ve been easing up on that attitude. I mean, I do try to start with a minimum viable kit for what I want to do, but if I enjoy it, I’ll dive in. Why not? I have an allowance for frivolities, I’m not hurting anyone, and it makes me happy to learn things.

Practicing one letter over and over to refine what I want and learn the motion

All hobbies are fractal, when you start examining them. I’m not sure the same is true of work, or maybe it’s just that deep expertise is less easy to share. So for the top-level hobby fountain pens, the fractal might look like this:

  • Handwriting
    • Penmanship
    • Calligraphy
    • Hand-lettering
  • Ink
    • Purchased
    • Hand-created
    • Mixing
  • Pens/Hardware
    • Prestige collection
    • Hacking/fixing
    • Restoration
    • Design

Each of those could be pursued further and further into tiny corners of specialized interest. That’s amazing. Seriously, thank you, internet. Hobbies are fandoms, and we can all find a place that suits us somewhere. I figured out that I love road cycling, but I hate bike maintenance. I can pay a shop to do that. There are other people who love tinkering, tuning, and upgrading their bikes. I like piecing quilts, but consider hand-quilting tedious. That’s ok, I can be a machine-quilter.

Once I thought of hobbies as fractal, I realized that we could not only drill down into sub-hobbies, we can back out to get a bigger picture of why we want to do hobbies, and it gives us an insight into why we want to do anything.

I like learning things. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction and control in my life. I feel about new ideas like a magpie feels about shiny beads. This basic tendency really accounts for most of my career – I used to joke that technical writing is a lifetime of writing research papers, but it’s not far off. It’s more like journalism, but the reporter is still going to walk away knowing more about the story than ever makes it into the paper.

My hobbies are a way for me to nourish that passion in a way that is good for me, as well as an employer. Sometimes I want a tactile thing to do when I got back to a hotel room in another city, completely worn out from people. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the difference between art and craft, work and hobby, is about how much you get paid, not how valuable it is. Even magpies can only pick up so many shiny beads before they really just want a break and some tinfoil.

What does that have to do with marksmanship? Everything. Because slow is smooth, and sometimes we need to move slowly to appreciate and learn what we need. Because smooth is fast – it pays to think through what we want to say and write before we commit it to ink. Because everything we do to learn a hobby is itself a way to learn the skill of teaching ourself.