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Deliberate Practice

Does Close Really Count in Horseshoes?

He’s hunched on the bottom step of the bleachers, squinting into his camera. Fans file in while two basketball teams warm up, but nothing changes his focus.
Hours later he displays the result on social media: action shots of athletes, one dribbling and the other shooting. Both images are beautifully framed in team colors, along with name and uniform number.
Only a few miles away, she too has trained her eyes on a target. It’s an empty computer screen, the bane of any writer. But with perseverance and the skills built over a lifetime, she will produce her latest blog. Called “Forensic Files Now,” it’s gaining an audience among those who want updates on the TV show.
“He” is Jeff Stiefbold, a successful high school sports coach who has plunged into photography. “She” is Rebecca Reisner, a journalist who has written sparkling headlines for major newspapers. For both of them, close is not enough. They have to get it right. They practice their craft with the precision of a Renaissance artist. And both found a fertile new area of life by doing what they love.
Neither one had a choice when it came to getting better, and getting it right. It came from their upbringing.
“In anything that was repeatable, you couldn’t beat my father,” said Stiefbold. “Foul shots, horseshoes, quoits. Every time we’d play he’d say, ‘Better luck next time.’ It was years before we beat him.” It sounds like for the elder Stiefbold, close in horseshoes was not enough. It had to be right on target.
Reisner also learned about quality from an early age.
“I came from a family where grammar was corrected,” she said. But while corrections sometimes turn others off, Reisner didn’t mind. She filed away the hints, building a database of correct English. She soon knew when others were using bad English (she was probably too smart to correct them). She read style experts Strunk and White at an early age. And she knows the pain and stigma of spelling a name wrong in the paper.
Stiefbold’s day starts long before he clicks the shutter on a bald eagle. He has to learn where the eagles are, and when they will be there. To do that, he must know why. So he studies details even down to temperatures in a river, because that affects where the birds go. It’s the game before the game, going back to his days of winning sports championships.
Reisner uses feedback to grow her audience. She knows, for instance, that readers don’t like her to throw in personal asides.
“I once was writing about a fire, and wrote ‘Which reminds me to change my alarm.’ They didn’t like it.” So she doesn’t do it.
Reisner has also learned that potential readers don’t care much when she herself plugs the blog. But when other readers praise it, her page views shoot up. Reisner’s blog has turned into a book.
Between the two of them — photographer and blogger — they show everything needed for improvement and quality: passion, preparation, effort at the job, and a willingness to accept feedback. They’re textbook.


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