The process of mastery

Photo by Oleg Ivanov

During my childhood, I always wanted to play an instrument, but for a variety of reasons, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. As an adult, I still wanted to learn to play an instrument, just not badly enough to, well, actually put in the effort required. As we all must do, I made choices among competing priorities, and playing an instrument just never quite made the cut.

Learning an instrument is unlike learning most other things; compared to most other things we try to learn it has a big difference in the time required between “Hmm… I’d like to learn this” and “OK, I’m pretty good!”. Knowing from the onset what kind of commitment would be required was something of a hindrance, and I was never quite ready to make the leap.

With that preamble, I am happy to report that I am now 2 years into learning to play the guitar. While I am far from any sort of proficiency, I can truthfully say that I play the guitar even if I feel obligated to follow up with a quick “But I am still not very good yet”.

I’ve always thought that being able to acquire new skills itself is an important skill to have, and this has offered an opportunity to reflect on the learning and mastery process when it occurs over a longer timeframe.

Have a good reason to master a new skill

The single reason that I have been able to learn the guitar is that I have been learning it with my son.

Our children have each had the opportunity to pick an instrument and learn it, and we decided that it would be mutually beneficial for me to learn guitar alongside our son. I can help encourage and guide him, we get to spend time together, and I get to fulfill a longtime goal of learning an instrument.

I know full well that without the extra reason of helping my son, I never would have been able to stick with it just for myself. Work would have gotten crazy for a while, I would have said, “I need to put this on pause for just a few weeks until it gets better”, and I never would have picked it up again.

For me, just wanting to learn to play an instrument was never enough by itself – but the additional motivation was enough to make it a priority.

You probably have a list of things you want to learn and improve too. Waiting until there is sufficient reason to take on something new is perfectly acceptable. If you really want to take the plunge, try bringing in additional motivations to help you start and sustain momentum.

Respect the process, and the time requirement

Over my lifetime I’ve learned a wide range of technologies, become reasonably proficient with several development languages and frameworks, become fluent in a second language, picked up enough electrical and plumbing knowledge to be able to help rehab a few houses, and gone through a lot of professional development across various roles. The timeline for learning each of those skills was significantly faster than what would be required to get reasonably good at learning an instrument.

It’s good to be goal-oriented, but sometimes feeling a need for instant gratification as we work towards a goal can be a hindrance. For me, “become proficient at the guitar” is an unreasonable goal. Depending on the definition of proficiency, it could be many years away – and my brain just isn’t wired to put in the investment for a payoff so far in the future.

Some “hacks” and perspectives I have learned to overcome this mental block:

Learn to accept baby steps

Learn these three beginner chords to strum out a recognizable rendition of this song” is a much more achievable goal. Several weeks of your fingers hurting and cramping in return for being able to accomplish this is a reasonable tradeoff. You can see the progress each time you pick up your guitar, and after a time you can gather the family around and say “Hey, listen to this!” (Unless they’ve been listening to you practice the last few weeks and can’t stomach another run-through…)

The great thing about this attitude is that on the next song, your fingers probably won’t hurt and cramp as much. It will still take just about as long, and the initial performance to the family won’t be recording-worthy on that song either. But by the time you get to song 5 or 6, you will pick it up noticeably quicker. And after 2 years, you just might be able to play a recognizable rendition of a song the first time through and give a decent performance after a week of practice – and you have a repertoire of 50 songs.

If you master one thing at a time, the eventual sum total of the individual components starts to bring you fairly close to that daunting end goal that you don’t like to think about. As the old saying goes: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Enjoy the process

If all you think about is your end goal it’s hard to achieve fulfillment or enjoyment before meeting it.

At the risk of sounding trite, if you are able to smell the roses along the way then the journey itself can be enjoyable. When I am able to push everything else to the side and actually focus on practicing, I find the practice fulfilling in and of itself. This doesn’t happen as often as I would like, but there is definitely a flow-like, zen state that I can sometimes get to.

During practice, it may require a deliberate effort to say “I’m not going to think about being a guitar master, I’m not even going to think about perfecting this song. I just want to be in the moment as I play it. I want to enjoy the sound in the room, and I want to feel the fingers on my hands work through the choreographed sequences I have been practicing.”

Recognizing mastery as a process allows you to appreciate it. When you enjoy traveling somewhere as much as you enjoy the destination, the journey is easier to commit to.

It’s OK to go slow

There are weeks where I can practice nearly every day, and I make phenomenal progress. Then there are weeks where my practices aren’t great, and there are weeks where I don’t practice at all.

That’s OK! the worst thing I can do is get frustrated with a lack of progress and just quit. Coming to terms with variability along the way is an important part of ensuring that the journey is a sustainable one.

Savor the progress

When you master a song that you really enjoy, keep playing it! Work on it until it is nearly perfect, play it to a bunch of people, and pull it out as part of your regular practice.

This is a practical way of “smelling the roses”. Don’t feel pressured to continually move on to the next thing to learn, or to push forward so fast that the journey isn’t fulfilling anymore. When you especially like playing a particular song, keep playing it!

No matter what you are learning or working towards mastery of, your attitude towards the process will have a huge impact on the probability of success. Respect the process, work towards smaller milestones during the journey, and make sure to have fun and celebrate along the way.

It’s never too late

Probably the single most eye-opening part of the whole experience for me was being able to see my own progress next to that of my now 8-year old son. A lot of the myths I mistakenly believed got completely blown up along the way.

“If you don’t start playing a musical instrument by the time you are 5 years old, you can’t achieve the level of mastery of somebody who did”. The success of the musicians who started at 5 years old is overwhelmingly attributable to the extra time they have had to practice. If there are two 15 year-olds playing a musical instrument and one has been practicing since they were 5 while the other started at age 10, who will be better? Obviously, it will be the musician who started at 5, but it will be due to the extra years of practice and not because 5 year-olds develop their musical abilities in some fashion only available at that age.

“Brain plasticity and your ability to learn declines significantly as you get older”. This isn’t completely wrong – but whatever you have heard or read, it has probably been oversimplified. The drop-off over time in your ability to learn is pretty gradual, doesn’t start until your 30’s anyway according to most studies, and some types of learning don’t see much of a decline at all until much later in life (if ever).

I thought that I would struggle to keep up with my son as he progressed, but that proved to not be the case. Whatever advantage I lacked in brain plasticity compared to him, I made up for with other factors. My having learned how to take a deliberate, disciplined approach to practice helped. My manual dexterity from years of typing and other similar tasks wasn’t available to my son, and a few decades of familiarity with the songs we played was enough to offset any advantage his younger brain offered.

Assuming he continues playing and improving, my son will be dramatically better than I am now long before he reaches my age. There’s nothing saying I can’t keep up though!

Bottom line: don’t let “I’m too old now” become an excuse for not learning or improving in something – it’s almost certainly not true.

Use a teacher or mentor

Another factor in our guitar success so far is that we have an excellent teacher. He is patient with us, he has built his skills while successfully teaching many students over several decades, and he knows how to make the process accessible.

There are a lot of individuals who have successfully taught themselves lots of things, which is in itself an important skill. At the same time, having a skilled teacher or mentor can help motivate you, guide you, and accelerate your mastery. The more difficult the skill, the more it may be worth considering involving somebody else in your improvement process.

Avoiding the lofty standard of the 0.001%.

If you want to feel depressed about your chances at musical mastery, go ahead and have a listen to Mozart’s composition from when he was 5 years old:

Minuet and Trio in G major, Mozart

It’s a sad fact of life that natural ability isn’t evenly distributed across the population, especially if you only consider a single narrow ability. Just because you won’t achieve what Mozart did at the age of 5 though doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever pick up an instrument.

My daughter loves basketball and wants to play in the WNBA. We are supportive of course and think that dreams are important for children (and adults!) to have. Because supporting those dreams is so important I’m hesitant to even type this out – but the fact is that the odds of her achieving this dream are overwhelmingly stacked against her. Looking at her gene pool, it appears unlikely that she will have the physical attributes to play at that level. No amount of practice will help somebody add 12 inches to their height.

If my daughter considers achieving the skill level of WNBA players to be the only measure of success, her chance of disappointment is high – and at some point, she would likely conclude that it’s not worth continuing to work towards mastery of the game of basketball.

Can she get a scholarship to play in college though? Could she get good at a game that will help her maintain physical activity and improve her health for the rest of her life? Can she enjoy playing in different leagues and building relationships with teammates for as long as she chooses to play?

I’m certainly never going to play like [insert your favorite guitar player here], but does that mean I shouldn’t even try to learn?

You may not become an industry-leading expert in the things you work on, but there are myriad other reasons to still work towards mastery.

The bottom line

Progression towards mastery can be rewarding all by itself, and it can bring additional successes along the way and once you achieve that mastery.

Nothing I’ve written here will be revolutionary to anyone who reads it. These points have all been written about individually by others, and many of them are intuitive and don’t really need much explanation.

Even still – as I have been going through the process of learning the guitar, the necessity of deliberate effort has continually been reinforced. I wanted to bring it all together as a reminder for the next time I am starting down the path of mastering something that requires a process like this.

I hope to always be learning and growing – and I hope this post might help remind you of some principles in your journey towards mastery as well.

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