My friend’s son Dylan is six years old and off-the-charts gifted. He knows this, and has begun to hold himself to impossibly high standards because of it. For instance, he’s learning to play guitar and an absolute natural at it. So my friend took him to see a concert by a local Jazz guitar legend, expecting it to inspire him. And it did, initially. But as she watched his face, his expression went from rapturous to confused to despondent. She said it was like watching a dark cloud pass over the sun.
About three songs in, Dylan asked to leave and she knew why. He was comparing his own beginner abilities with this experienced master. He couldn’t comprehend the time and dedication it took for this player to get this good, or accept that at the ripe old age of six he couldn’t possibly measure up. Watching a talented guitar player didn’t encourage him to practice harder and improve his own performance in the future, it just made him feel like a crappy guitar player in the moment.
You don’t have to be a painfully self-aware first grader to fall into this trap. Plenty of adults succumb to this kind of comparison, finding ourselves lacking in some crucial area and then falling into a pit of despair. We want to aspire, to motivate ourselves by watching people who’ve mastered skills we’re still learning. But sometimes it hurts too much. Sometimes we see mastery, and realize we don’t have it yet, and it breaks our hearts a little. Why should we keep painting if we can never capture light like Vermeer? How can we keep ourselves motivated in the boardroom if we pale in comparison to every CEO we’ve ever met? What can we do to cope with a lack of mastery?
Keep At It.
Recently I heard SPANX creator Sara Blakely interviewed on the “How I Built This” podcast, and was surprised to hear the host gushing over her “rapid rise” to success. As I listened to Blakely tell her story, it was clear to me that she’d poured a ton of hard work and wildly unconventional marketing tactics into her company over the years. The early painstaking research she did into patent law would be enough to deter most people. There was nothing rapid or pre-ordained about her rise to the top. Which reminded me that everyone looks like an overnight success looking from the outside in.
If someone pops onto your radar after they’ve gotten their big break, it’s very easy to overlook the years, maybe even decades of struggle and drudgery that came before. Most people who achieve a level of mastery invest a massive amount of frustrating practice into their passions before seeing any tangible payoff. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posited “10,000 hours” as the requisite amount of time necessary to attain mastery in any given field. An arbitrary number for sure, but the point is this: success in any endeavor requires massive amounts of patience, dedication and practice. So if you’re not quite there yet, don’t despair. But keep at it.
Reframe for Success
The hard truth is that not all of us are destined for greatness. Sometimes 10,000 hours just ain’t enough, and we have to find ways to live with this realization. Reframing a lack of mastery can be disheartening, but it’s both possible and important. Start by asking yourself, “What is it about being the master that I really want?” Is it prestige? Power? Money? Approval? Feeling socially connected? Next, consider the data. Is there any actual proof that this particular type of mastery is a guarantee of happiness or impact or fulfillment? Too often, we define success by the wrong set of criteria, or measure ourselves against an impossible-to-achieve standard. Just because you’re never gonna pitch for the Yankees doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a game of softball with your friends.
In sports, good coaches will often focus on their team’s “systems” rather that results. By setting up a workable system for players to adhere to at practice time, it releases them of the burden to achieve. Over time, they learn to “trust the system” and the results usually take care of themselves. We all have things we wish to achieve. Maybe it’s running a marathon, selling a business, or writing a book. Your goal then is to come up with a workable system within which this becomes possible over time. If it’s a book you want to write, this means committing to a daily writing schedule. If it’s running a marathon, it’s about lacing up your shoes and getting out the door. Focusing on the system releases us of the pressure that goals can sometimes create.
As a coach myself, I always encourage people to reach for the stars. I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise. But I also have to point out that mastery is often hard won. Sometimes it is slow to come, if it ever comes at all. It takes courage, patience and perseverance. And there are no shortcuts. As someone once famously said: “The key to getting what you want in life is figure out the price, and then pay it.” Six-year-old Dylan still struggles when he sees others outpace him, but he also shows up for his guitar lessons every single week. And even if he never becomes Jimi Hendrix, he’s learning to enjoy the practice, while improving at the same time.