Posts Tagged ‘excellence’

Sometimes when we are on the road to excellence, we get a little tired. We wish we were already there. We wish the road had a literal signpost saying “You have made it, and you can officially stop worrying and consider yourself to be awesome.” We wonder if we should have chosen something easier to do with our time. And we think that maybe there is a magic bullet, something we can do that will–Bibbidi bobbidi boo!–make us more amazing.

Let me make this part of the road simpler for you.

There are no short cuts. There are no magic bullets. There are no sure things. There are no easy paths. So if you want something quick and easy, excellence isn’t the end goal for you.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Sure, there are activities beyond diligent practice you can do that will help you progress. In writing, these include attending workshops, reading slush, seeking out critique experiences, reading craft books like The 10% Solution, etc. In singing, these include participating in master classes and workshops, auditioning, obtaining performance opportunities (however humble), studying with different teachers, etc. But none of these methods are foolproof, and not all of them will pan out.

Take the various Clarion workshops, for example. Working professional writers often cite their Clarion experience as being pivotal in their development as writers. These are the stories about Clarion that we hear most often. But then there are the writers like Alexandra MacKenzie, who took ten years after the workshop to be ready to learn from one of her instructors. Because you can’t always control the timing of these sorts of things. And there are also the Clarion attendees who stopped writing altogether; these are the ones we hear about the least, and yet they assuredly exist. Why? Because no way of leveling up is foolproof. No way of advancing works for every single person.

The path to excellence doesn’t often go flat like a plateau only to suddenly rocket steeply upwards into awesomeness. It is a gradual process, a long slow incline upwards. As Seth Godin says, it is a series of hills, one after another. Those who continue to improve keep choosing new hills to climb that are just on the edge of their abilities.

Sometimes the path feels like a flat-line that suddenly springs up, but this is an illusion. I saw it all the time with my students in voice lessons. They would work steadily and gradually improve, so gradually that they didn’t even notice it happening. They would struggle with a concept and it wouldn’t quite be clicking, and they’d get frustrated and discouraged. At this stage in the process, it was my job as the teacher to keep pushing them, keep encouraging them, keep them singing even if they were ready to throw in the towel. And then inevitably, they’d finally understand. Their bodies would finally coordinate correctly, the muscle memory would finally develop, the ideas we were talking about would finally make actual instead of theoretical sense. And they’d experience a leap in ability. A leap that was really a slow mounting of ability all along.

That leap in ability is just around the corner for all of us. If we practice diligently and intelligently (directed practice as opposed to blind repetition), we are pushing ourselves forward along the path. The leap may come next week or it may come next year. It may come after we take a month-long break or it may come after a few weeks of intense practice. We don’t know when it will come. Excellence requires us to have the faith to sustain us while we work.

We must believe the leap will come. But it won’t come because of magic. It will come because of our own hard work.

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I have devoted my life to the pursuit of excellence. The Greeks called this areté, striving for excellence, living up to the best of one’s potential, and facing challenges with courage and persistence. I wanted to be the best student. I wanted to become a skilled singer. I wanted to travel around the world. I wanted to be an effective teacher. And now I want to be a masterful writer.

Areté has been one of the driving forces of my life. I care about people and relationships, I care about my health (only because I can’t get away with being indifferent to it), and I care about excellence. That’s not to say I don’t have other interests, passions, and concerns, but these three things I think about every single day.

Here’s the thing about mastery: it tends to be all-consuming. It requires commitment to make your practice one of the highest priorities in your life. It requires patience and fortitude while you struggle to improve. It requires the willingness to be bad (especially when starting out) and the strength to fail.

J.S. Bach--an undisputed master of musical composition.

Mastery takes time. It’s not easy to achieve, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about (or they’re looking for a snappy headline that will drive page views or book sales). I used to have voice students come in for lessons, expecting to become fabulous singers with a month or two of lessons (and barely any time outside of that devoted to practicing). Guess what? They never became fabulous singers. They learned some basics, and that’s as far as they went. (Strangely, parents understand this about their kids and usually (although not always) insist on more commitment. Adults were by far the most egregious in terms of thinking singing would be an easy skill to acquire.) Sure, some of my students could skate by on their natural skills for a while, only to eventually arrive at the realization that if they wanted serious chops, they’d have to put the effort in.

Mastery takes focus. I’ve always hated it when people ask me what my hobbies are. The question triggers me to think about how I spent my time. For years, the real answer was: I sing in different genres. I play the piano. I love to sight-read. I compose and write songs. I adore musical theater. I think about educational theories and new ways to help my students learn. I think about the psychology of singing.

Nowadays, I write and I read. I analyze and research and think and learn. I go to bookstores and conventions and signings. It’s not that I have no interests outside of writing, but I have to dig deeper to unearth them for casual conversation, and I have a tendency to relate my other interests to writing in one way or another. Have a bad experience? Well, it will be useful for my writing sometime down the line. Like RPGs or theater? Well, they let me study different ways to structure stories. Travel? Broadens my horizons and lets me envision worlds outside my daily one.

Mastery takes diligence. I love this example of Steve Martin. He devoted himself to learning how to perform live comedy and play the banjo. Then he changed over to making movies. Then he changed over to writing fiction. Then he began to focus some more on the banjo again (and won a Grammy for his efforts). The article (which you should go read because it is super interesting) posits that his success is due in no small part to his practice of diligence.

Commitment. Time. Focus. Diligence. And the dream of someday being able to accomplish what you can only imagine right now.

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