Overriding the yips


Dear Artist,

A few years ago while working, Scott Adams felt a spasm in the pinky finger of his drawing hand. He was diagnosed with focal dystonia — a neurological disorder where misfiring neurons in the brain cause unwelcome contractions in task-specific muscles. Musicians call it “musician’s dystonia”; archers “target panic”; and, in other sports, it’s called the “yips.” While the causes aren’t well understood, it’s thought to come from excessive overuse of fine motor muscles, and doctors say it’s incurable.


Back in 1979, Adams was a young, hapless office worker aspiring to be an artist and hatching a plan to improve his odds of cubicle escape. He would picture in his mind what he wanted, then write it down on a piece of paper several times a day. He also cartooned nightly and, through repetition, practice and incremental portfolio building, he cured himself of his day job.

For his dystonia, Adams sat at his drawing table holding pencil to paper for a few minutes, noticing that it took a several seconds for the spasm to begin. He repeated the motion hundreds of times — pencil to paper, then lifting it away before the spasm could kick in. Over time, he found he could keep the position without getting the spasm. Eventually, he said, the dystonia disappeared. “I found a way to essentially hack my brain to convince it that putting my pen on paper wasn’t some kind of a problem that it needed to respond to.”


“Goals are for losers,” says Adams. Life can be structured for consistent creativity and personal systems that, in time, will improve your odds of success. Steady development, refining of ideas and technique and a habit of working at it daily beat wondering if you have enough raw passion to make it. A ritual, a routine, a desire to understand how to connect with your collectors and a tried and tested system for transcending obstacles will increase your chances of overriding the yips. “You don’t need passion, you don’t need goals. You need systems that improve your odds.” (Scott Adams)




PS: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Esoterica: At 22, Scott Adams was a manager-in-training at the Crocker National Bank in San Francisco. He also worked as a computer programmer, then budget analyst, lender, manager and, eventually, supervisor. By the time he was 29 he’d earned an MBA and, on the side, created a Silicon Valley-based, socially challenged cartoon engineer named Dilbert and his megalomaniacal dog, Dogbert. After several failed pitches, the first Dilbert comic strip was published by United Media on April 16, 1989, while Adams still worked in IT for Pacific Bell. Today, Dilbert appears in over 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries, in 25 languages and on the Web. Scott Adams has drawn over 9,000 daily Dilbert cartoons in 27 years and credits its early success to putting his email address in the margin of the strip, encouraging readers to write to him with their ideas. How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams’ 2013 tribute to serial failure, is here.


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“There’s nothing that’s really impossible. Lots of things seem impossible, but sometimes they’re not if you just keep plugging away.” (Scott Adams)

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