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Posts Tagged ‘mastery’

1.

There’s this article beginning to make the rounds called “My Wife is a Terrible Piano Player.” I’ll confess I didn’t read the whole thing, but I like its main point. When we start doing something new, we’re usually bad at it. The first time I tried to play the piano, I’m sure I sounded like a little kid pounding randomly on a lot of keys. Because in fact, that’s what I was. It took years of time and practice and instruction and effort for me to become a passable pianist.

This makes me think about grit, a word I’ve seen pop up a lot lately. There are several components to grit, it seems, but one of them must be the ability to persevere even when we’re bad at something. Really bad. Wince-worthy bad, our efforts plagued with mistakes, missteps (or misnotes, as the case may be), and misunderstandings.

The first time I play a new board game, I never expect to win. It’s not that I think winning is impossible or that I’m not good at games. But I like to give myself the space to be bad while I’m learning. I want to experiment. I want to be able to make mistakes without embarrassment or disappointment. Isn’t that what learning is all about?

2.

But some people grow discouraged and give up. They don’t give themselves the time they would need to become good at something.

I saw this difficulty as a teacher. It was particularly prevalent with gifted children. They were so used to everything coming easily to them that when something didn’t–like, say, music, which pretty much always requires lots of practice–it was really difficult for them to continue. They grew frustrated. They weren’t used to having to wait to become good.

Music lessons were probably one of the best things those children could have been doing. Because really what they were learning was not only music, but grit.

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

3.

If, then, part of grit is giving ourselves permission to be bad at the beginning of learning something new, then another part of grit is cultivating self-discipline.

Becoming good at something is not always going to be fun. I love singing, but have I loved every minute of becoming a good singer? Have I enjoyed learning every song I’ve ever been assigned, figuring out how to practice effectively when I’m sick, doing the same exercise over and over and over, giving a poor audition? No. I love writing, but have I loved every minute of improving as a writer? Do I love the times when I’m stuck or whenever I realize my world building sucks or the endless revising or the hours upon hours writing personalized agent query letters? No.

If becoming good at something was pure enjoyment, we wouldn’t need much self-discipline. But there are always going to be off days and parts that aren’t very fun and repetition that is so boring you just want to scream at your screen and then go do anything else. And for things that don’t come with automatic structure, we have to provide ourselves with our own motivation and our own goal-setting as well.

Self-discipline, self-motivation, self-direction? All part of grit.

4.

Just in case anybody wants to talk about talent? Forget about it. Grit is more important.

We can argue about whether talent exists. I happen to think it does. But talent without grit is not enough. Grit without talent might be. Talent might give an extra boost, but having that boost makes it less likely you’ll develop the necessary grit. So if you do have talent, that means you have to work even harder.

5.

So the next time you start learning something new and you really, really suck at it, congratulate yourself and give yourself a pat on the back. “Good job for persevering, self,” you can say. “You’re showing some real grit.”

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I spent a lot of time talking about writing last week, which meant it was an incredibly happy time for me. It also means I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing, and the process of becoming better at something, and what it really means to engage in and spend your time on the pursuit of mastery.

What I’ve found is this: There is the big picture, the goals/dreams we are pushing ourselves toward. In writing, this might be having a story bought by a certain magazine, or getting an agent, or getting a book deal, or getting into a certain program, or reaching a certain sales goal, or a hundred other goals. These goals can be a positive force in our development, keeping us motivated, focused, and business-minded, as long as we can stay resilient enough to weather the disappointments.

When we achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of joy. It is very exciting. If you are me, there might be clapping and bouncing and maniacal cackling. There is a time to savor the achievement.

Similarly, when we fail to achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of sadness and disappointment. If you are me, there might be sulking while playing solitaire or making loud “Hmmph!” noises. There is a time to lick wounds and regroup.

If everything in our process is basically working, then either way leads to the same result. The work. The practice. The study. The craft. The art.

Photo by Darwin Bell

The good news is wonderful; the bad news sucks. But what really matters is what happens in between these peaks and valleys. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a musician, you play. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a chef, you cook. If you’re an entrepreneur, you come up with and implement ideas. And always, you are working, practicing, and striving to become better.

The bursts of joy and sorrow can be intense, but they don’t last. What does last is our relationship to our calling. The words. The story-telling. The breath. The process.

This is what it means to seek mastery.

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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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