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How to get really good at (fill in the blank)

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

We all intuitively know when we have experienced a display of exceptional skill because it stirs up emotions in us that words cannot quite capture. It is the feeling that causes you to shake your head in disbelief at Stephen Curry’s accuracy from 3-point range on a basketball court. It’s the emotions you feel when a soulful guitar solo leaves you in tears. It is the excitement that forces you to dance when you hear Alicia Keys belt out the chorus to “Empire State of Mind” from her famed vocal chords. Words cannot describe these feelings because exceptional skill predates language in our human culture. Before the invention of language or the existence of insanely skilled musicians, writers, and athletes, our ancestors were insanely skilled hunters and navigators who could deftly weave their way through the rich African jungle and strategically plan the efficient killing of prey. Master’s of their respective domains seem to possess skill that is otherworldly and beyond the average person’s grasp. This apparent unattainability of mastery is further heightened by the fact that there are so few masters in history who really stand out. These masters form a shining line through the annals of time: Galileo, Leo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin, Martha Graham, Marie Curie, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, Steven Paul Jobs, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and John Mayer amongst others. The otherworldly skill these masters possess seduces us into repeatedly asking certain questions. How does exceptional skill come about? Are their brains just different from that of the average person? Are these people just born geniuses? Can anyone become a genius? Do I have what it takes to be like that or should I just accept my lot in life and stop fooling myself? Well my friends, I invite you to follow me on this literary journey as I attempt to explain where exceptional skill comes from.

Provided you are blessed to live in an environment where the social, political, and economic climates are relatively calm, you can develop exceptional skill. Exceptional skill is not a sacred treasure that only the pre-ordained few are born with, it is available to whomever is prepared to do the following things:

  • Discover your unique primal talent
  • Devote a ridiculous amount of time (~15,000 hours) to honing your craft
  • Be willing to endure a lot of mental and/or physical anguish
  • Engage in lifelong learning and improvement as a person and practitioner of your craft

Discover your unique and primal talent: No two people are exactly alike. Even identical twins – effectively biological clones of one another – have subtle environmentally induced differences between them. I maintain that this uniqueness from person to person marks each individual with the tools to do something uniquely special. Some of us are born with a good sense of rhythm and excellent hand dexterity… these types would probably do well as pianists or guitarists. Some of us are born with a keen mind for strategy and gamesmanship… these types would probably make good army generals or CEOs. Some still are born with amazing reserves of energy and physical stamina… these types would fare well as professional athletes or dancers. Understand: no matter who you are, there is something special about you. At the moment you may be ignoring your special talent because society thinks it is weird and laughs at you whenever you show it. Know that those who laugh or make jest of you do so out of plain ignorance. In actual fact, your “weirdness”/talent should be exactly what you seek out and cultivate at all costs.

Sadly, some of us succumb to the constant pressure from society and bury our natural talents so deep that we eventually forget what they are. The average person doesn’t know where their natural inclinations lie and as a result, we remain prisoners to jobs that pay just enough to keep food on the table while we pay off a mountain of debt. If that doesn’t sound great to you, then you must go in the opposite direction and figure out what you are good at. It is that thing that seems to come naturally without as much effort on your part. A good way to find out what you like to do is to think back to your childhood. During childhood, none of us were socially “sophisticated” enough to know what embarrassment meant so our spirits freely gravitated to the things we loved to do. Maybe you were always running around and had tons of energy (athlete), maybe the sound of music mesmerized you (singer, guitarist), or perhaps you got a thrill from scaring the living hell out of your siblings (movie director). I promise you that if you look deep enough, these early love affairs still exist in you. They never die… they are just significantly dimmed by disuse. It might take you months or years to rediscover your talents and rekindle them, but it will be well worth it. Without a clear knowledge of your primal inclinations, mastery will be infinitely more difficult to attain. It is therefore the first and most critical step on your journey.

Devote a ridiculous amount of time (~15,000 hours) to honing your craft: It is true that your natural talent and inclinations are precious gifts given to you at birth. However, these are merely raw materials that will fail you at some point if you aren’t skilled. The only way to develop true masterful skill is through deliberate practice over a long period of time. As a matter of fact, what seems like second nature to many geniuses didn’t come naturally at all. Michael Jordan was a notoriously hard worker who would practice for hours on end like his life depended on it. Kobe Bryant forced himself to spend the time it took to make 1000 jump shots everyday. Albert Einstein spent 3 – 4 hours everyday contemplating what it would feel like to ride alongside a beam of light. John Mayer spent 6 hours a day playing guitar in his basement for ~10 years as a teenager and young adult. Some of you may point to child prodigies as a reversal of this dynamic, but if you look closer, you will find that a lot of child prodigies don’t accomplish anything that is world class until they have spent an average of 10 years immersed in their field. Yes, Mozart was composing at the age of 9 but he didn’t have his first universally acclaimed work until Concerto #9 at age 21. Yes, Tiger Woods won the master’s golf tournament at 21, but he had been receiving great instruction from his father and practising hard since he was 5 years old. This pattern repeats itself over and over again in the lives of the most respected geniuses. If you are determined and never give up, it is only a matter of time until you become a master provided your practice habits are effective.

Be willing to endure a lot of mental and/or physical anguish: Like anything good in life, mastery doesn’t come easy to any of us. Perhaps it is a mechanism of natural selection to make sure that only the toughest and most determined of us gain the power to influence our human culture. Your path to mastery will involve quite a few unpleasant things. You will most likely encounter some resistance in the form of jealousy, other people doubting of your ability, and endless amounts of painful deliberate practice. Pay no attention to the doubters or the envious… deep down, they wish they had your drive and only seek to impede your progress to preserve their shaky self esteem. I’d rather discuss an essential factor for your journey to mastery with you: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is quite different from what most people think practice is. It requires a lot of time and is NOT inherently enjoyable. For example, an amatuer golfer may think of practice as going to the golf course with a goal of hitting 100 golf balls. A golfer in search of mastery would think of practice as going to the course to hit 100 golf balls with a target of landing 93% of them within 10 feet of the cup. The second goal takes a lot more focused deep attention to accomplish and is much more challenging than hitting a golf ball as hard as you can for fun. This subtle difference between the above stated practice habits is often the reason why you can meet two people who have both been playing guitar for 3 years and one is so much better than the other. You will find that if you look more closely, the better player had a more methodical approach to practice, allowing him or her to deeply absorb the very essence of the craft. This applies to every genre… it is not enough to mindlessly practice your craft. You must be deliberate and methodical in your quest for excellence. You must resist the temptation to be nice to yourself and continually push against our naturally lazy human tendencies. You must constantly attempt things within your chosen field that are just outside the realm of your current abilities. That is the true spirit of a master and the only way to keep getting better.

Lifelong learning and improvement as a person and practitioner of your craft: Most masters are fluid in their thinking and ways of being. They rarely stay wedded to a set way of doing things and are constantly experimenting with ways to improve their craft. As an example, when Michael Jordan first burst onto the NBA scene in the 1980s, he was known as a high flying super athletic dunking machine with no 3 point shot. At the end of his career though, he had worked so hard on his shot that he became deadly from 3 point range. This is a clear example of a man that never stopped working on his craft even at a point in his life when he was widely recognized as the best basketball player on the planet. The jazz artist John Coltrane still practised 10 hours a day even after he had become fully established. There are stories of him practising so hard till the reeds on his saxophone turned red with blood from his fingers. Coltrane was constantly searching for that next level to which he could elevate his craft. When Jimi Hendrix first burst onto the scene in the 1960s, he was fired from several bands because of his strange penchant to musically go off on his own leaving the rest of his band members confused and exasperated. They simply couldn’t keep up with his idiosyncratic and intensely personal style of guitar playing. This was a sign of Jimi’s pioneering spirit and inclination for constant experimentation. A strong foreshadowing of his later mastery.

Some people may see mastery as dark, greedy, ambitious and selfish, but I venture to say that those who say that miss the point. You are special and the world needs you so developing your unique talents to the level of “badass” is actually a necessity. According to one of my favorite authors – Robert Greene – it is the height of selfishness to merely consume what other people have created without contributing something of your own to society. We can’t all be as crazy skilled as Leonardo Da Vinci, but you can be a master on your own scale who enriches his or her immediate environment. Nothing is too small to contribute… even if your gift means you excel at making others laugh their socks off, that to me has immense value in its own special way. So my friends… let’s all get after it and let the quest for mastery at whatever scale you choose hold sway.


Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.

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1 thought on “How to get really good at (fill in the blank)

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