# How to Draw An Owl

One interpretation of the image and caption is that it reinforces how some folks perceive the progression from novice to expert:

Stage 1: You suck.
Stage 2: You're an expert.

In fact, mastering a skill involves hundreds of stages of incremental improvement over a very long period of time.

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy.

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Another interpretation of the image is that it's showing that step one is always "start," and step two is always "keep going and going and going until you've nailed it."

(image hat tip to Alexia Tsotsis)

##### 28 comments on “How to Draw An Owl”
• It also depends on whether it requires 1000 steps vs. 1000000 steps though (i.e. your talent level at getting to the destination in the minimum number of steps).

• My take: There’s nothing to be timid about in drawing 2 circles. In an ambitious life path, it’s something we may have to do many times.

• Always “start,” and step two is always “keep going and going and going until you’ve nailed it.”

YES!

• Owinok says:

The difference between those who stop after the first circle and the rest is about endurance. It takes lots of work to be able to draw the owl and many people give up long before they have reached the second level.

• Here’s another interpretation: Instructions often aren’t terribly instructive. I was instantly reminded of introductions to regression analysis that go, “we take a look at the VIFs and see that they are all under 2, so there are no collinearity problems.” What you really want to know, of course, is what to do when some of the VIFs are over 10 and you definitely have a collinearity problem.

• Mar says:

Reminds me of the old Chinese saying – The best way to chop down a tree is to chop it down.

Not very politically correct, though đź™‚

• When I start an artwork, pretty quickly I hate it, and I’m sure it stinks. I’ve learned to just keep working on it. I’m often surprised when someone else sees it, or buys it, and tells me how much they love it. My whole career has gone like this.

• Randy says:

I teach piano, and I constantly have to tell new students who inquire about lessons that learning piano is a long term committment in terms of money, energy, effort and time. It’s like learning a foreign language — you don’t learn much after six months or even a year. So you can conjugate vowels — that’s not conversation or reading ability.

Learning to play piano is hard work, and it requires daily practice for at least half an hour each day. Even more if you actually want to see progress.

Yes, there are many terrible piano teachers and you end up learning wrong things, or not learning basics. But if you have a good teacher and the right dedication, anyone can learn piano.

I always tell them that if playing piano were easy, everyone would be a Horowitz. And yes, Horowitz makes it look easy, but that’s his job. And it IS easy — anything that you have spent your entire life mastering is going to become very easy for you.

But you can learn to draw that owl by learning first the basics of drawing. Once you learn that, you can draw any animal or object that you see. But it takes time and discipline, something that most people simply cannot deal with.

• zt says:

That’s the problem. With drawing anyway, I could always “draw the owl”. The second portrait I ever drew at 12 was complete – a person, not an owl. I knew nothing about circles or any drawing techniques and even held my pencil wrong. It nevertheless was a near perfect reproduction.

This made me believe that unless I had at least that much natural skill to start off with, I shouldn’t even bother.

This has been a real stumbling block when it comes to music, which I love much more than drawing, but at which I am very average. It’s a constant inner battle of “What’s the Fucking Point?”

• onjibonrenat says:

I think maybe this needs a few more steps, ie:
1. Start
2. Keep going.
3. You think you’re starting to get the hang of it.
4. You see someone else’s work and feel undeniable misery.
5. Keep going.
6. Keep going.
7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
8. You don’t.
9. Keep going.
10. You ask for someone else’s opinion–their response is standoffish, though polite.
11. Depression.
12. Keep going.
13. Keep going.
14. You ask someone else’s opinion–their response is favorable.
15. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
16. Keep going.
17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
18. Self-loathing chastisement.
19. Depression
20. Keep going.
21. You ask someone else’s opinion–they respond quite favorably.
22. They’re still wrong.
23. Depression.
24. Keep going though you can’t possibly imagine why.
25. Become restless.
26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
27. They’re still fucking wrong (Right?)
28. Keep going just because there’s nothing else to do.
29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
30. Keep. Fucking. Going.

• Steve says:

Mastery, like learning in general, is a process. It is not a stage. You have to live your life in a certain way and eventually you will have the skills that go with that life. The final paragraphs in the chapter on Habit in William James’ “Principles of Psychology” (1910) nails it.

• There is also an assumption here that people expect mastery. I think many activities people engage in are ones they learn and enjoy at first, and the payback for the investment of time and effort is worthwhile. Then returns diminish and people make decisions about the tradeoff involved. Many will decide at a certain point to pursue other interests. There is nothing wrong with that.

This is common especially in things like training for 10Ks and longer distances. People don’t think it is easy, and they do work to complete it, but they don’t think about mastering the 10K or the marathon or anything else. They are happy to achieve a milestone and move on.

• There is also an assumption here that people expect mastery. I think many activities people engage in are ones they learn and enjoy at first, and the payback for the investment of time and effort is worthwhile. Then returns diminish and people make decisions about the tradeoff involved. Many will decide at a certain point to pursue other interests. There is nothing wrong with that.

This is common especially in things like training for 10Ks and longer distances. People don’t think it is easy, and they do work to complete it, but they don’t think about mastering the 10K or the marathon or anything else. They are happy to achieve a milestone and move on.

• If this is true for individual mastery – What about collective practice? Shouldn’t the introduction of a new business practice also be expected to be a long process?

• Peg says:

Hmmm. Hard to imagine mastery as “nailing it.” More like just keeping going: more nuance, more effort, more shadow, more shades…

• It is true, the first step is start then continue and keep on improving on what you are doing.

• Yes – there are a lot of tactical-level details that have to be learned/discovered on the way, and people often won’t think to put them in an instruction manual. This is when having a guide at some point becomes key.

• Another interpretation of the image is that you don’t get the joke.

• Cole says:

I understand totally. I started piano when I was 3, and ended when I was 27. I needed a break. I had been doing it all my life, and knew nothing else. I wanted to learn graphic design and web design, and now I do that for a living, but it took years of work to learn that too. I’m still learning graphic design. One day I’ll go back to the piano for the love of it, for myself, but until then, if feels good not to have to play everyday, and it feels good that all that is expected of me is not just that one thing.

• Wayne says:

Isn’t there simply one phrase missing between 1 and 2? Something like:

“… 10,000 hours … ”

You know Outliers and all? (I’ve tried to think how much time I spent programming in high school, college, and early career before I felt I was really good at my craft, to see if it really does come out around they mythical 10,000 hours.

• becsnyc says:

YES. Amazing list – love it!

• Janet says:

Haha. Im on number step 16 right now… sounds very familiar. haha

• LOL. Laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair.

I’m a cartoonist and can draw the F____ing owl, but people, as you say, so often think it’s going to be easy when developing a skill.

Just enjoy the ride. It makes it ALL go much faster and smoother!!!

Great article Ben.

• Jane Ann McLachlan says:

great list.
However, perhaps there were no steps between draw two circles and draw the owl, because for every person who starts with two circles and ends with an owl, the steps in between are unique and individual. Everyone has to find their own steps, because we are all unique individuals, and there is no one way to draw an owl.
Jane Ann McLachlan

• This post cracked me up. It took me by surprise. I love it. Any owl I would draw would look a lot more like the one of the left.

Not sure what the significance of this is, but this week I stumbled upon some petroglyphs and one was of an owl. This is apparently unusual subject. I have to say it also looks more like the one on the left.

• What a HOOT! Sorry, couldn’t resist. But seriously – this is seriously funny AND seriously true. So many people want someone else to hold their hand, when the answer to life’s most persistent questions is “JUST DO IT!” – Ellyn Deuink

• The last interpretation (“keep going and going”) is wrong, and so are most comments. We’re humans, language is one of our main traits and it is useful because we can transfer information easily among ourselves, in groups. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that. Those instructions to draw an owl are absolutely crap.

Those who say the only way to do things is just doing them are plain wrong, if you are going to do anything at least slightly complex you better get familiar with the state of the art about human knowledge on the subject, learn it, and do it through practice. Practice alone means just taking the long road, one without books or teachers. The lack of common sense in the comments is astounding. Next time you buy something at Ikea throw right away the instructions and don’t complain about them, take that as a challenge from which you will learn something that you will consider valuable, even if it could never have any value in practice, i.e. in reality.

“Why so serious?” You may ask. “Why that rant?”. Because of the implicit insults to: teachers, their work, researchers, anyone who writes instructive books, the human knowledge, the theory, the time (aka life) of anyone reading those comments and following them as advice, those who do a proper work at writing instructions (and software documentation, and software to assist at any task), and many more…