Since we moved to Alameda last fall, a bike ride out to Alameda Point (and the decommissioned Naval Base) is part of my regular routine. Roughly a 7-mile round trip ride, it’s good exercise and I enjoy the strange isolation of the abandoned base, the wide open spaces, and the breathtaking views of San Francisco. Riding out there this weekend I was struck by the fact that every time I go, I see something previously unnoticed…an unusual building, a road option, a strangely worded sign, or a half buried railway track. This weekend it was the airport control tower, squatting at the western end of the base. How had I missed seeing that before?
My spurious powers of observation got me thinking about the value of repetition. How much easier it is to find your way around a place that you’ve been to before. How much more you notice on a subsequent visit. How much better a recipe turns out the second or third time its made. How much more help you can be to someone new to a task when you yourself have done it before. And how much more I notice each time I visit Alameda Point.
Repetition is what I’m talking about here. Not redundancy. It’s pretty tough to stand up for needless duplication, boring drills, or mind-numbing recurrences.
The lesson took on a new dimension with a small water-color painting of a plucked flower, pictured at the top of this post. I sketched, then painted it. Unhappy with the result, I decided to try it again. Better. Maybe a third time? Much better. Ok, so maybe I took the idea too far by trying the same painting eight times, but the resulting output was intriguing. It wasn’t a steady improvement where the eighth painting turned was the best of the bunch. Rather, some elements improved steadily – color blending, perspective on the leaves – while others (the sketched arch of the plant) were best in the earliest iterations.
It wasn’t the productivity or consistency sought in the automation of a process (such as the value of an assembly line) but there was a state of flow to the endeavor. My brain was fully engaged with the task and certain parts of it became easier and easier to do because I didn’t have to think about them too much.
Perhaps the most interesting part to me was the experience of inhabiting the process – dwelling there for more time than I normally would have devoted to it – which served up the opportunity to observe a range of possible outcomes. There was comfort, even pleasure, in the recreation and insight to be gained.