I’m not finished yet.
I’m sure that at some point in my life, someone must have told me I’d have to work hard to be successful. They must have done. It’s one of those things people just know. It takes ten weeks to form a habit and ten thousand hours to become a master. In order to get ahead, you have to be obsessive. Practice should be a daily routine.
Surely someone told me this. The problem is, I didn’t believe them.
I was a smart kid. Furthermore, I was blessed with certain creative talents. With a smattering of exceptions I could count on one hand, school was an easy place to be. I almost always got A’s or B’s. I starred in the spring musicals. I was in the French Honor Society and the Art Honor Society and the Advanced Choir.
You can probably see where this is going. It’s not as if the subject has never been talked about before. Hell, just now I clicked over to my Tumblr tab and was greeted by a study that shows children who are praised for their talents (rather than their efforts) are more ashamed when they fail. We feel we have value only when we succeed. And for many, success doesn’t mean being merely adequate: it means being top tier. 90th percentile at least.
If it were easy to be in that top tier all the time, if you never needed to put in that much effort, would you believe anyone who told you that being successful meant working hard? And what would happen when you found something new that you loved, that you desperately wanted to be great at, but weren’t?
In my early twenties, I began to learn the guitar. I felt myself drifting away from the idea of acting as a career (which would need to be a post on its own) but still wanted to perform. Music seemed the obvious choice: there was no audition process involved; all anyone had to do to be a musician was simply be one.
But d’you know what? Learning to play the guitar beyond the basic chords is really difficult. I’m on the threshold of my late twenties now and I’ve barely peeked below the tip of the iceberg. And for those first few years, whenever someone would tell me I still had a lot to learn, I didn’t feel a drive and a hunger and a passion to advance my skills. I felt ashamed. What business did I have doing something that I wasn’t naturally brilliant at? Even these days, when I’m in the presence of anyone whose ability outshines my own, I sometimes have to struggle not to feel worthless.
The lesson that it takes actual effort to advance is one I’ve noticed a lot of my friends have had to learn in recent years. There’s one that comes after it, though, and it’s an even more difficult one to believe: that it’s all right not to be great at something. That your worth as a human being is not measured by your talents. And that if you do want to become great at something, you need to accept your failings and chip away at them, piece by tiny piece.
There’s a really wonderful BBC radio sitcom called Cabin Pressure, about the employees of a tiny charter airline. In one episode, the highly-relatable-to-my-generation Captain Martin Crieff sums up that second lesson handily:
On your scale of one to ten, if one is the bare minimum competence, I’m about a four. And I used to be a one — no, I used to be a zero. And then I took my CPL again… and again… and then I was a one, and then a two, and then a three and now a four.
And I’m not finished yet.
Currently, on the scale of guitar skills, I might call myself a three. Four if I’m beng generous.
But that’s okay. I’m not finished yet.