By itself, that might seem like a weird title. But let me ask you a question. Do you know what the difference is between making progress passively and making progress actively?

In this post, I’m going to talk about improving your lettering, but the methodology and approach here is really no different from any other skill or craft.

When you pick up your pen and begin lettering, what is your purpose? Are you working on a piece that you’ve planned out? Maybe you’re iterating on a client project? Perhaps you’re just doodling?

As lettering artists, sometimes the act of “doing” feels black and white. We either create or we don’t. If we don’t, we never improve. Have you ever thought this? I know I have.

Active Progression vs. Passive Progression

If we create often, we progress quickly. Therefore, the more we show up, the better off we are. Right?

I want to challenge this notion. I believe that it doesn’t matter how much you show up and create. If you show up and create every day, you might progress slowly (passively). But in order to make leaps and bounds, you need to progress on purpose. This is active progression.

A Real-Life Example

Back when I started learning calligraphy, I immersed myself in blackletter script. I spent hours a day learning variations of the alphabet. Every couple of weeks, it was unbelievable to flip back through my sketchbook and see how much I had progressed.

After a short time, I felt like I had finished what I had set out to do. I had learned blackletter! It was an incredibly dangerous sense of accomplishment.

After that initial growth spurt, I stopped growing because I stopped learning. Instead of studying my work and looking at how I could push it to the next level, my progression became stagnant.

It wasn’t until months down the line that I realized my work wasn’t all that strong. It eventually occurred to me that if I want to be as good as I thought I was during that short time, I needed to step up my game. Big time.

I began searching for inspiration online and discovered many new artists who were producing breathtaking blackletter work. Their work was so good, that it made my own work look like chicken scratch. This was the kick in the ass I needed.

From there on out, I promised myself that I would never fall into the “accomplishment trap” again. I went back to the basics and began focusing in on the smallest of details. My journey into lettering, whether it’s blackletter or another style, is never complete. There is always room for improvement.

Active Progression

If you want to improve rapidly, you need to get used to the fact that you’re on a never-ending journey. The second you begin to feel comfortable, the more you’ll begin to stagnate.

If you set out to learn something, the only thing preventing you from learning is your own hesitance. You hesitate because it’s unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

The best thing you can do for your growth is to put yourself in a situation of unfamiliarity and discomfort.

As human beings, we adapt. That’s how we’ve evolved into the most intelligent of species. When we put ourselves in an uncomfortable situation, we eventually grow comfortable. And when we do, that’s a confirmation of improvement.

The key is to never stop being uncomfortable. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but don’t fall into the trap of letting your accomplishments stunt your growth.

Passive Progression

At this point, you’re probably getting the point. But one final thing worth mentioning is that you’ll have an easier time progressing actively if you’re purposefully avoiding passive behaviors.

This isn’t hard to do, you just need to remain conscious. Here are some ways to avoid passive behaviors:

  • Set SMART goals. Always have a goal that you’re deliberately working towards.
  • Never sit down to a blank page without a purpose or direction. Consider developing a creative calendar to plan out your work ahead of time.
  • Make more time. Whether you get up earlier, stay up later, or say no to something, find a way to make your efforts a priority.
  • Surround yourself by people that are better than you. Embrace the power of community.

Oh. And avoid doodling — it’s just a waste of time!