And on the 30th day, she looked forward to Indian food with a friend.

I was in the laundry room, folding mounds of towels and sheets and listening to one of my favorite doctor-writers, Atul Gawande.

Mr. Gawande was talking about how he recently spent time comparing operating room procedures to kitchen procedures at The Cheesecake Factory. He was impressed with the fact that within weeks, all the items on a brand-new Cheesecake Factory menu had been memorized, mastered and turned into an instinctive, practiced set of skilled motions by each of the Cheesecake Factory chefs nationwide. (I’m paraphrasing, but this is how I understood it.)

I listened carefully to everything he said, because I love Atul Gawande. He’s the guy who, years ago, wrote an article that entranced me. This article still entrances me –I still read it over and over– with everything that it has to say about how an ordinary person can get really, really good at something.

Becoming good at something, no, not good, great at something is not, according to Mr. Gawande, dependent on talent so much as a combination of endless practice, endless striving, a refusal to set a limit on yourself, and something else that I think of as an intuitive leap.

You trudge, you trudge, you trudge, you make miniscule progress that you can barely measure, you grow discouraged and disheartened, and then one day you wake up and poof!, you’ve vaulted onto a whole new plane of existence.

Listening to Atul Gawande talk about how the Cheesecake Factory kitchen is highly organized in terms of quality control, with an overseer who checks every single plate as it leaves the chef line, correcting the chef for every tiny aspect of the dish that’s not perfect, which results in incredibly fast mastery of each dish, made me think of another article he wrote a few years ago, about appendices and where to get them taken out.

The best place to get your appendix removed, as it turns out, is not the hospital with the most brilliant surgeons on staff. Nope. If you want your appendix taken out, you should go to a clinic that does nothing but take out appendices (appendixes?), one after another, dozens and dozens a day, by surgeons who do nothing else.

When I got my eyeballs fried I went to a doctor who does nothing but fry eyeballs, day in and day out, dozens a day. He’s an eyeball-frying robot and he does a great job, at least in part because the operation is so utterly familiar.

When I studied Chinese I spent hours forming characters over and over and over and over and over, one to each little box on the character-practice sheets. I don’t write Chinese anymore, but sometimes, if I need to calm down, I’ll sit and trace certain beloved characters over and over and over until the rhythm once again becomes automatic.

I think that great writing –great art, maybe– is a combination of a practice so ingrained and so familiar that it’s in your bones, along with a longing for, what, transcendence?, and an undying push toward perfection.

That perfection can’t be attained doesn’t make any difference. You just keep trying. The trying itself, along with the longing and the practice, will, eventually and often when you least expect it, vault you into a new level of mastery.

When it comes to writing, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m good at, and I also know what I’m bad at. (Apologies for that sentence, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.)

Most of the time, I choose to focus on what I’m good at and camouflage, distract from, hide, or eliminate what I’m bad at.

Listening to Atul Gawande gave me the idea for my final never done before challenge of the month: Identify an aspect of writing that I’m bad at, and get better at it. Do this by devising a process that combines rote practice with the possibility of a serendipitous Darwinian leap.

So, that’s what I’ll be doing this coming month. I’ve identified something specific I’m bad at and I’ll be working on it every day for at least ten minutes. You’ll have to trust me on this, though, because the official part of the Never Done Before challenge is, as of today, OVER.

I began the challenge on my birthday, one month ago today, in a what-the-hell mood following the consumption of both a Sidecar and an Aviation at Jax Cafe in northeast Minneapolis.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, in a what the hellish sort of way. And despite the fact that I had no idea how much time it would end up taking, it still seems like a good idea. I’m glad I did it, dead mouse detonation and all. Thanks.


  1. oreo · August 14, 2012

    I was going to remark upon the coincidence that you also like Atul Gawande until I remembered that you’re the one who introduced me to his books. Instead I shall remark upon how much I enjoyed reading about your Never Before Done challenge, and attempting to keep up with you. It definitely gave my month a different flavor, and I plan to continue seeking out the Never Before Done even though we’re back in the same old city living the same old life. Especially, in fact, now that we’re back in the same old city.


  2. Karen · August 14, 2012

    I’m glad you did this, too. It’s been fun following along, and there are a few posts that I keep going back to and thinking about. The cat on a leash, for example. I ended up being in town 3 times in July, and went to several Lake Harriet Pops concerts at the bandshell because my parents still play there every summer. And I kept seeing the same guy there with a cat on a leash–a cat that didn’t seem to mind–and I wished you could see it.

    I loved “Camouflage” because it was such a surprise, and so heartfelt and elegant. And I love this post, which makes me think about so many different things I want to say in response that I haven’t been able to bring myself to comment. I’ll mention these two things: 1) I loved filling in the character practice sheets you gave us–it was both soothing and satisfying. And 2) “Becoming good at something, no, not good, great at something is not, according to Mr. Gawande, dependent on talent so much as a combination of endless practice, endless striving, a refusal to set a limit on yourself, and something else that I think of as an intuitive leap”–that is at the heart of the Suzuki method, and a huge influence on my life. It’s something that I saw bear itself out in my music education (I don’t know about being great, but I got at least to a level where I could earn a living doing it) and that I truly hope will transfer-into and prove true with writing.

    Thank you for your writing!


  3. nicole · August 17, 2012

    i am finally catching up on my blog reading… so expect several comments from me.

    I just went and read that article of his and it was amazing. Made me think. A lot. About A lot of things. Like work and my own health things I’ve been through in recent years. And it was interesting. It also made me wonder if that isn’t why we love competition/sports – because we can quantitatively say who is the best. The same with awards.

    Anyway, thank you for this post as it is making me think so much and now I want to read more by Dr Gawande and look for areas of things I good at but could be better 🙂


  4. Ginger · August 22, 2012

    I’ve enjoyed lurking this month on your what-the-hell project. I missed your last post, because–true story–I was attending my annual WTHS, or what-the-hell sabbatical, where there are no husbands, no kids, and the answer to any question is what the hell. This year’s sabbatical involved having my face painted in melted chocolate. Sure beats stepping on a dead mouse. Next year we’re going to Quebec. Feel free to join us if you’re in a what-the-hell mood. 🙂


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