HOW to Become Truly GOOD at Almost ANYTHING or Getting to CARNGIE HALL without a GPS

A few years ago I decided to take up guitar.

But wait!  In order for you to fully appreciate that statement it’s important that I clarify a few things about my natural musical ability.  For instance, I’m probably the only kid in the world who’s ever failed 5th grade band.  And no, I’m not talking about the ‘big-kid’ band that has cool instruments like the saxophone and clarinet I’m talking about ‘beginner’s band’ with the little throw-away plastic flute!  (They called it a ‘recorder’ but trust me…nobody wanted to record any of the noises that I made with that thing!) The grand extent of my musical talent stops with being able to play a CD.  But, in my defense, at least when I press play it sounds (well, at least most of the time) like the original artist!

But learning to play the guitar has always been one of my closet fantasies. So one day, in a fit of proactive courage, I decided to cultivate my inner Eddie Van Halen.

My plan was simple.  I’d buy a guitar—not a top of the line (i.e. expensive) model but not necessarily a cheap ‘kiddy’ one either.  At the same time I’d get one for my daughter Katie.  It seemed to me that if she and I used the ‘buddy system’ to practice and encourage each other along then our success would be virtually guaranteed.  My budget couldn’t quite stretch far enough to pay for formal lessons from a real flesh-and-blood instructor so I instead invested in a highly-rated (and fairly pricey) DVD lesson program.  Once that was in hand Katie and I reserved 30-45 minutes every afternoon for meticulously going through the lessons.

Now, enter my first-born son Chris.

Chris asks me if I would also buy him a guitar so that he could practice along with us.  To which I said “No”.  And though he did sulk a little bit…he didn’t really push the point.  Now please understand, it wasn’t that I was trying to ‘be mean’ or ‘play favorites’ between my children.  See, Chris (who was 13 at the time) was a child of above average intelligence coupled with equally above average energy.  And basically, that means that he had above average trouble staying focused on some of the more important things in life like school-work, chores and (at times) personal hygiene.  Simply put, I didn’t see buying a $100+ guitar that in the end wouldn’t do anything more than just sit in his room and collect dust.  Katie, on the other hand, possessed natural patience, a gentle nature and already loved to sing.  These, in my opinion, were the ideal qualities for a successful music student.

Now let’s fast-forward to today.  Those of you who know my family personally, can probably already see where I’m headed with this.  There is only one proficient guitarist in the Bowers family today and it’s definitely not me—or Katie for that matter.  Without a single formal lesson (and to my knowledge not even a single DVD-based lesson) Chris can make his (not-so-cheap) Washburn dreadnaught sing, dance and even sell concessions.  And Katie and I?  Well, let’s just say that we have the privilege of listening to him.  Sometimes we can even make out a couple of the basic chords that he hits and that’s about as far as we’ve got in learning guitar.

How did this turnabout happen?  Weren’t Katie and I doing all of the right things?  After all, we invested our money and time.  We faithfully maintained our scheduled practice sessions.  And we encouraged each other along the way. WHY then didn’t it work? We’re we using the tried and true formula for reaching our goals?  Evidently not!  Furthermore, how could Chris—who had every conceivable disadvantage—have managed to slingshot around us?

Well, don’t worry…our story’s not over yet.  But let’s take a few moments to philosophize about some very important and relevant stuff related to learning things.  Then we can come back and finish our story about how Chris learned the guitar while Katie and I didn’t.  Trust me.  You’re going to love it!

Goals vs. Character

All of us have things we would like to accomplish in life—some discipline or goal that we desire to work towards.  These goals can range from becoming physically healthy or going back to school to learning to play the cello.  In fact, as humans we have inherited a natural longing to improve ourselves, our circumstances and our surroundings.  And not coincidentally, we’re usually happiest when we’re exercising our creative capabilities and the most miserable when we’re not.  This is why being ‘stuck in a rut’ creatively (whether at work or at home) dulls ours senses and leads to complacent thinking and lethargy.  However, exercising our creative powers regularly helps keep both our minds and bodies agile and strong.  How can it do both?  We’ll soon see that endeavors of creativity and personal expansion actually exercises and conditions our human spirit (our fundamental energy) and by extension strengthens every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, you and I don’t live in a world that is very conductive to cultivating creativity or learning a discipline.  In fact, if you or I learn to truly master skill or discipline nowadays we’re swimming against overwhelming tides.  Modern culture emphasizes the ‘fast track’ way of living and thinking and in response we tend to rely heavily on quick, push-button, instantly-gratifying (and ultimately short-term) answers.  We want powders that ‘make us’ lose weight, pills that ‘make us’ feel better.  We want video games that simulate real sports and (too often) real life.  We want food that comes conveniently pre-packaged from the freezer section of the grocery store rather than grow or cook truly nourishing things.  The problem is that these quick-fix-solutions only have the ability to take us so far before the universal law of returns brings our ‘pot-shot revolution’ to an end.

Succeeding at any worthwhile goal requires a LOT of self-discipline, resourcefulness, patience and understanding.  Of course these are all the fundamental traits of a strong and balanced character.  In other words they are traits that don’t exist in our repertoire naturally or instinctively—they are traits we have to LEARN and DEVELOP from scratch.  But if we ever hope to accomplish our goals—especially the difficult ones—then we need those traits in their fully developed, mature state as an active part of our mental and emotional toolbox.  If they’re missing from our daily thinking and actions then we can never succeed long-term because we’ll run out of energy, enthusiasm and patience or become frustrated…  We’ll make excuses and even unconsciously sabotage ourselves…  Either way, the net effect is the same: we’ll quit.

Building strong fundamental character skills within ourselves should be the first step to making sure we succeed in our goals.

The Tandem Paradox

Character skills are not learned and developed overnight.  They operate under what Dr. Stephen R. Covey calls ‘The Law of the Harvest’.  In principle this means that in we have to plant in the Spring-time the seeds of the fruits we want to reap in the Fall.  If other words, the hardest work like building patience, self-discipline, mental toughness and focus must be done first.  We have to actively cultivate those traits in ourselves and give them time to grow and mature before we attempt to reach towards those primary goals.

So, how do we proverbially plant and nurture these skills to maturity?  Well, the answer is actually a bit of a paradox:  We pursue a discipline.

Wait—I know!  You’re thinking that I’ve finally busted a gasket.  Am I saying that in order to build the skills that we need to succeed in learning a discipline that we should…learn a discipline?

Actually, yes—that’s exactly what I’m saying!

Let me introduce to you the concept of the Tandem Paradox.  It basically goes like this:  If we want to learn the character skills required in reaching large, difficult and ambitious goals then we can learn and refine those skills by first pursuing a secondary discipline. This secondary discipline serves as the ‘training wheels’ for learning those fundamental skills that we’ll use later.

Let’s break it down.

As human beings, we learn our most fundamental skills in a certain order and progression.  For instance, it’s psychologically necessary for us to crawl before we walk.  The physical act of crawling allows us to build the neurological coordination that we’ll need to eventually learn to be bipedal.  What’s funny about crawling is that it’s not really that much of an easier skill to master than walking.  The only real difference is the height of the fall.  If we take a little tumble while crawling we’re a lot less likely to get hurt.  By having a ‘crawling stage’ we’re allowed the psychological and emotional freedom to independently explore the world around us.  Once that love of mobility and sense of exploration has been discovered we’re never content (at least till lazy semi-adulthood) to be stationary beings again.  Our love of being free and mobile becomes so strong that by the time we’re walking, even a painful fall won’t stop us for too long.  By then we’ve built up the skill set and experience to know that the experience of walking is “worth the lumps”.

As adults our outlook is not that different.  That’s why choosing to master a secondary discipline like oil painting, cooking or writing (i.e. crawling) builds within us the fundamental character skills necessary for us to succeed at the bigger goals in life like a healthier lifestyle or a higher-degree. (i.e. walking).

Unfortunately, it was years after Katie and I attempted to learn the guitar before I learned the Tandem Paradox.  Back then I believed that desire was all that you needed in order to succeed at anything in life.  I was so wrong.  However, since that time I’ve done a tremendous amount of studying and thinking about the subject—and subsequently have learned a lot of things.  In part II of this article I would like to share with you what I honestly feel to be some of the most important knowledge that I’ve ever learned about the subject of learning.  Of all of the things that I’ve ever written for the Character-Quest Project, these principles have served me invaluably in the last few years.  May they do the same for you…

PART II

Developing the Attitude & Approach of a MASTER

To understand the difference between a master and a practitioner let’s use our imagination to mentally contrast the differences between a typical high-school basketball player and NBA legend Larry Bird.  Both are athletes.  Both practice the game of basketball regularly.  We could arguably reason that basketball is an important part of each of their lives.  However, the difference is that only one of them possesses the seasoned experience that comes from innumerable hours of practice and actual game time on-court experience.  While the high-schooler has to take extra time to size up each of his free throws Larry Bird (in his prime) had such a working muscle memory that he could sink a basket from almost anywhere on court without hardly a glance.  (He used to practice 300 free throws before every-single game in his career—in addition to his daily on-court workouts.)

The only real difference between these two is: Experience.  Larry Bird has much, much, MUCH more experience than the high school player.  As hard as it may be to believe Larry Bird was not bio-engineered in a top-secret lab solely for the purpose of playing basketball.  He had to learn dribbling and shooting in the exact same way that that everyone does.  In fact, there was a time when even Larry Bird was only a high school rookie.  What’s made him so much better than the average player is that he’s spent a lot more time than them actually playing.

Mastery of any activity comes through constant, submersive experience.  Someone on the path of mastery has to love walking that path (practicing) as much—or truthfully more—than they love reaching the destination (Goal).  The Master loves the burn of the exercise more than the number of calories lost.  They love weeding the garden as much as eating the vegetables.  They’ve found as much joy in preparing a meal as they do eating it.  Yep, that’s right, Larry Bird had to love practicing the fundamentals of basketball…if he didn’t he would have never become that good.

The Master relishes the full experience of their discipline—trying to squeeze every drop of extractable essence from it.

The Dabbler, The Obsessive & The Hacker

In his groundbreaking book Mastery (which has been one of the influential books in my own life after the events of The Incident) George Leonard identifies three thought patterns that are the enemy of Master’s mindset.  When we examine these modes of thinking it’s apparent that everyone we know (including ourselves) exhibits them in some part of our life.

The Dabbler – The Dabbler enters into a learning experience with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.  They’re so anxious to get the ball rolling in a new hobby that they’ll immediately run out and buy all the equipment and accessories needed to fit into this new lifestyle.   For instance, if they’re taking up golf they’ll not only buy formal lessons but they’ll go ahead and purchase expensive clubs, shoes and 5-6 designer shirts before they’ve ever taken a swing the first ball.  They do this because they believe their investment and sacrifice will help keep them motivated long term.  They’re proverbially throwing down roots.

When the Dabbler finally starts practicing they initially do extremely well and this instant success only fuels their excitement.  The problem comes when that initial enthusiasm begins wearing off.  All at once progress tapers off or worse, they actually lose some ground.  This stage is called ‘the plateau’ and it is a natural part of learning anything…but the Dabbler doesn’t know it (or care).  They want only the constant climax of being somehow better during every-single practice session—and are deeply frustrated when that doesn’t happen.   Inevitably, after a few weeks or months, practice has become nowhere near as exciting or important to the Dabbler as it once was.  They lose interest and decide to “move on” and ‘dabble’ in more exciting, things.

The Obsessive – The Obsessive doesn’t just want to learn a skill—they want to be a ‘natural’ at it.  They are the ones who get all the books on their chosen discipline and ask instructors for constant after-class instruction.  Like the Dabbler, the Obsessive is likely to invest in expensive equipment early on.  However, the Obsessive’s chief motivation is usually peer recognition.  They want to become recognized as an authority in their discipline as quickly as possible.  The Obsessive wants to ‘have practiced’ or ‘seem practiced’ but doesn’t really like to actually physically practice.

What ultimately happens is that the Obsessive hits a point where their practical skills and their book knowledge no longer match up.  This is where that natural dip in progress (the plateau that we mentioned earlier) comes in and once again undermines progress.  The Obsessive begins to experience multiple failures and can’t understand why.  They keep getting rejection letters, burning the soufflé or their swing continues to hook to the left no matter what they do.  After experiencing a few such setbacks and maybe even making a few gallant ‘last stand’-style pushes the Obsessive begins to question themselves and ultimately decides that this particular discipline was “not for them” after all.

The Hacker – The Hacker is the person who takes the lukewarm approach at learning something.  They are content to do just enough to “learn the ropes” of a skill but nothing more.  These kinds of folks hang out on the message boards of a website for a given discipline because they enjoy the camaraderie they feel among other hackers (or more like ‘slackers’).  The Hacker hits the inevitable plateau and just stays there.  They don’t care about bowling a 300 or finishing their golf game under par.  They just want some recreation and relaxation time.

Of course there are mixes and variations of the above the Dabbler, Obsessive and Hacker.  They are not really pigeon-hole labels as much as they are well-worn mental ruts that our thinking likes to settle into.  I’ve seen (and experienced) this kind of thinking sabotage progress in relationships, careers, hobbies and even spiritual things like prayer and Bible study.

The Master – The Master’s attitude has all of the genuine enthusiasm of the Dabbler or Obsessive but a totally different approach.  The Master dedicates himself to the art of practicing.  To him practice is just as enjoyable and fulfilling as a professional performance would be.  In other words, the writer loves to write.  It doesn’t matter how many rejection slips come in the mail.  They would write if it were for no other reason than to stick it in the desk drawer.  The same is true with the painter or the dancer.  In short, the Master loves the process of learning and mastering the skill…they love doing the art.  They see plateaus, setbacks and challenges not as stop signs but merely as stepping stones.

Part III

Developing the Mindset to become truly GOOD at ANYTHING

So far we’ve alluded to the two primary principles of learning and becoming truly good at any discipline.  However, now it’s time to chisel these principles into proverbial stone.  When applied consistently and honestly they will profoundly refine any skill that we ever need to apply whether physical, mental or spiritual.

PRINCIPLE #1:  Find Playtime

Many of the most important principles that we ever learned in life we learned during playtime as children.  For instance, whether we realize it or not, those seesaws, swing sets, marry-go-rounds and trampolines were teaching us all of the laws of physics needed to interact with the world around us.  That’s right!  As amazing as it sounds when we were blissfully trying to kick higher and higher in the swing (so that we could ‘touch the sky’) we were actually learning about the principles of inertia and other laws of physics!  Consider for a moment how all of the various pieces of playground equipment teach us to master our physical skill and coordination.  Sure, scientists label and catalog these principles but they are truly and practically learned on the playground.  And it doesn’t stop there; sandboxes, board games and yard sports to teach us the basics of sharing and interacting with others.  The fact is that the very BEST way to learn about the world around us is by playing with it!

The problem comes we “grow up” in the wrong way.  Somewhere around the time we get our high-school diploma we join what society deems as “the real world” where there is little time left to explore and learn like we did when we were children.  It’s a real shame too.  We become fattened with pre-packaged knowledge—‘book learning’ that is usually based on someone’s theories more than real world experience—rather than taking the time to go and find our own knowledge.  Over time we mentally become as categorized (and as stuffy) as those books and the people that wrote them.  We never reach the moon because we quit dreaming about going there and are instead content to let the Discovery Channel teach us about it.

I’m here to tell you today, whether you’re 10 or 100, the key being able to effectively learn any skill is directly and inseparably tied to our ability to uninhibitedly play.  What applies in the sand-box or playhouse WILL inexorably play out in the boardroom or at home.  So, if you want to mold yourself into someone who has more self-discipline, patience and kindness then allow yourself to learn them in life’s grand ‘Romper Room’.

What should your playhouse or sandbox be?  It needs to be something that excites you…something that you feel passionate about…something that inspires your inner child.  Painting, gardening, playing the saxophone or restoring an old car can be fun as well as rewarding.  Invest a little part of each day into the pursuit of this discipline.  But, whatever you chose to do, make it into playtime.  Don’t become so invested that minor setbacks frustrate you.  Instead anticipate the setbacks and plateaus—in fact embrace them because in order to have reached a setback means that you must have made progress to begin with.  Those setbacks teach just as much and often more than do the successes.  Approach it with the mindset of a child building a sandcastle by the seashore.  When the tide comes in and washes away everything the child has worked on he allows himself a moment to mourn the loss.  But in the next instance he will think of how ‘neat’ it was to watch the ‘tidal wave’ swallow his entire city and wash them away into the sea.  The rest of his time is then spent relocating and rebuilding.  Why?  Because (he doesn’t realize it but) he allowed himself to learn from the sandcastle’s destruction.

Let go and have fun.  Try and try again.  Find the joy. Learn to laugh.  Believe it or not these are the REAL fundamental skills needed to succeed at everything in life.

PRINCIPLE #2:  Master the Art of Practice

Consider the following question:  What’s the difference between a world-class violinist that plays for a large Philharmonic and someone who plays casually?  Is it talent?  Is it genetics?  Doesn’t it seem that some people are “genetically coded” to do certain things better than others.  What about these folks who are super good at Math?  (I’m talking about the folks that can calculate algorithms in their head.)  Doesn’t their brain work in someway that’s faster and more accurate than the average person?

It is true that we all have natural talents and abilities.  We were created that way.  Truthfully, I’ve always felt that one of the major failing of our educational system is that it doesn’t periodically test our children’s personalities to help them find their interests and talents.  This would go a long way in helping them to choose careers and activities that make them happy and fulfilled.  However, modern science has recently proved that innate talent only goes so far towards making an individual successful in any skill.  In fact, it’s found that the world-class violinist only owes a small part of her success to her “natural” musical ability.  There’s plenty—and I mean plenty—of people who have the fingers, coordination, natural rhythm and even the ear for music.  They too could be considered one of the BEST in the world—but many of them have never picked up a violin and thus have never discovered their talents—instead they walk the world as secretaries, salespeople and nurses—and very often their unhappy because they haven’t discovered who they really are.

As we saw first hand earlier by contrasting the average high-school basketball player against hoops legend Larry Bird: practice truly does make perfect.  In fact, we see that the only real difference between the world-class athlete, musician, physicist and chess-player is the time that they’ve spent practicing.  In his recent masterpiece Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell details an enlightening study performed in the 90’s by renowned University of Florida professor K. Anders Ericsson at the Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.  The study was to see exactly how much of a role “innate talent” seems to play in master violinists.  The study divided the Academy’s violinists into three groups.  The first were the “Stars” those who truly had the level of performance that could make them world-class soloists.  The second group was labeled “good” and it was made up of violin soloists of above-average proficiency.  The third group was made up of those players, who though good (And you had to be good to get into the Academy to start with) but did not have the polished skill to excel professionally.

Each member of these three groups were asked questions like what age they began playing the violin and how many hours had they practiced.  The results were startling.  Nowhere—absolutely nowhere among (arguably) the world’s greatest violinists was there a ‘natural prodigy’ who had somehow toddled over to a violin as a small child and busted out some Beethoven.  In fact, the exact OPPOSITE was true in almost every case.  The students who were the most polished, skilled, coordinated and proficient had simply logged more practice time than the students put in other groups; and I mean MUCH more practice time.  In fact, all of the soloists at the Academy had begun playing at around age 5 or 6.  At that level they only practiced only 2 or 3 hours a week.  But by the time they were 8 years old those who had natural musical talent began to practice more than their peers.  After spending those first couple of years learning the fundamental skills, the players became proficient enough to start ‘playing around’ with their knowledge.  This was critical because it helped them to decide that playing the violin was actually fun (and what’s more) that they were good at it!  The net effect was that by age twenty these students were practicing the violin 30-40 hours a week!

There’s a lot we can learn from this study!  First of all, it seems that with whatever discipline that we might pursue that the hardest work—building up the fundamental skillset—comes first.  There’s no way around this mountain other than to ‘dig in’ and climb it all the way to the snowy peak!  But after we reach that summit and ingrain those fundamentals then we have a little more leeway to ‘play’ creatively and productively and thus can have a lot more fun.

How much practice is enough to become good?  It seems that the magic number for becoming a ‘master’ at a given skill is after about 10,000 hours.  In Outliers, Gladwell goes on to quote renowned neurologist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin.  “The emerging picture from…studies is that ten-thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.” writes Levitin “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess-players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.  Of course it doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do.  But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.  It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery”. (Emphasis all mine.)

It seems that the answer to two of life’s most fundamental questions (“What ‘makes’ us perfect? and “How do we get to Carnegie Hall?”) have the same answer:  Practice man. Practice.

Conclusion: How My Son Chris Learned the Guitar

Remember how Katie and I set up this nice little practice schedule and bought all of the gear needed to play the guitar?  Remember how we used the “buddy system” to encourage each other along?  Well, it didn’t work! After a few weeks other priorities came up and one (or both) of us and we were not able to keep the practice schedule as regularly as we intended.  The net result was that we never developed those basic skills needed to reach the point where our practice became fun.  In the end we both quit because we thought that we either lacked the talent of discipline.

On the other hand, Chris got angry (i.e. passionate) because I wouldn’t buy him a guitar and allow him to practice with us.  The resulting anger was positive because rather than stewing on it, he put it to work!  He saved up his money—which is pretty hard to come by at 13 years old—and bought his own guitar.  Then he did the most conventional thing imaginable: he began to practice.  No DVD or set time schedule for him!  No sir!  He printed a list of basic chords and looked up the chords for his favorite songs from the internet and practiced them.  He didn’t limit himself to 30 minutes a day either.  He would play the guitar and sing (which me and his mom call “killing the cat”) from 2 to 4 hours per day seven days a week.  When I’d finally break down, get mad and yell at him to ‘shut that racket up’ he would sit on his bed and silently run through the chord progressions with his fingers developing impeccable muscle memory.

My son Chris

After a few months he suddenly reached this point where he was able to start ‘changing up’ (playing with) the progression of his favorite songs.  By doing so he discovered way of ‘reinterpreting songs’ and also found many new chords that sounded really good together.  On top of that, when he wasn’t practicing, he was watching live concert footage of his favorite musicians on Youtube and listening to their stories.  All in all he submerged himself into the culture of music and this profoundly deepened his practice.  It was never work or routine to him—it was play—and that made all the difference in the world!  Today at age 18 Chris is an above average guitarist who composes complex music and lyrics.  I’m very proud of him because in this regard, he’s taught me something.

So what about me?  Well, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Katie and I got our guitars.  But I think all you CQ readers will be proud to know that a few nights ago I dusted off my old six-string and have begun practicing again.  I don’t have the time (or inclination for that matter) to practice like Chris did but I’ve learned that I don’t really have to.  I’m never going to rock out on stage with Nickelback with thousands of young ladies screaming my name.  (And if I ever did then Lady B would probably frown upon me.)  But with some dedication, practice coupled with an attitude of play I bet that I might be able to bust out a little CCR or Garth Brooks in my living room from time to time.

Until next time…

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About Michael Bowers

My name is Michael Bowers and I invite you to go on a QUEST with me. It’s not a quest to change the world but rather to change ourselves. We’ll call it a “Character-Quest” because it will be about BEING or BECOMING examples of substance and integrity in everything we do…striving to live a life of pure excellence! And you know what? I’m a firm believer that if we first concentrate on overcoming our own problems then we naturally gain needed leverage for helping others with theirs.
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One Response to HOW to Become Truly GOOD at Almost ANYTHING or Getting to CARNGIE HALL without a GPS

  1. Clifton Joseph Warren says:

    This is so beautiful and very encouraging. I have slacked a lot in practicing, so i better get my tracks and steps together.

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