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The Second-Best Time

I’ve been learning to play the guitar for the past five or so years. Rather, a better way to say it is that I have NOT been learning to play the guitar for the past five years or so. Ever since I was a little kid, I would watch my father play his guitar, reclining on the bed or sitting on the couch, zen-fully plucking away beautiful, intricate melodies. And, ever since I was a kid, I had a longing to learn how to play that instrument. I have a deep admiration for guitarists, and especially those that can sing and play; to me, this is the height of multitasking accomplishment. When I was in grad school, I bought a guitar, determined to learn how to play. Visions of myself at beach bonfires, blissfully strumming and singing, danced in my head (never mind that I’ve never even been to a beach bonfire before.) That vision sustained me for about two weeks of daily practice; for a half hour at a time, I’d contort my fingers into odd shapes across the fret board, choppily making chord after chord till my fingers blistered and began to form callouses. And then… somehow, it would drop off. I would get overwhelmed with papers, work, and the rest of general living, and the guitar would sit in the corner gracefully collecting dust. Maybe a few months later, I’d stare at it wistfully, the old fantasies flickering to light again, and the cycle would repeat itself.

The truth is, I still would desperately like to be an expert guitarist (heck, I’d settle for being a mediocre guitarist,) but my pattern of fits and starts has left me bereft of any concrete skill, aside from the basic chords. Why does this happen to us? And how do we work our way around or through it? I’m inclined to believe that the answer is two-fold: meaning making, and deliberate practice.

Victor Frankl, one of the fathers of modern existential therapies (his particular brand being called Logotherapy) said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (originally written 1946; recently published 2006) that a quote by Nietzsche, the nihilist philosopher laid a cornerstone in his own theorizing. It goes, “A man [or woman, #feminism] with a good why can endure any how.” This was particularly meaningful for Frankl, who made his observations while enduring the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps; he noticed that people who had a strong sense of purpose and drive were often more resilient than those who could not find something significant for which to endure. As a result, Frankl’s theory upon leaving the camps was focused around helping individuals find a sense of purpose for her/his struggles, which qualified and eased the suffering they felt. If we are going to bring ourselves to following through on something that has been a challenge, it can be really critical to first take some time and answer the question, “What makes [learning guitar] important to me? Why is this worthwhile?” Being able to answer that question provides a core anchor point for us to return to when our motivation or endurance fails; from the most difficult of challenges, like surviving torture, to the significantly less so, like learning a new skill.

Did you know that in order to become an expert at any thing, you’d need to engage in approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice? You’ve probably heard that phrase going around thanks to psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the research of Anders Ericsson in his book Outliers (2008). As it turns out, that’s not quite an accurate statement. Some new research has shown that deliberate practice accounts for different percentages of what accounts for outcomes in mastery (Baer, 2014). It’s not as clean of a formula as we’d like to believe (10k hours of practice and you can be the master of anything!) however, few things in life ever are. Nevertheless, in order to be successful in an endeavor, and I believe, in breaking through a barrier to growth, deliberate practice is a critical ingredient. Without pushing ourselves to work on what feels difficult, it is impossible to move forward. So, if I detest the key of F on guitar, and refuse to push myself to do that uncomfortable work, I will never become the guitarist that I want to be. With ten thousand hours of guitar practice, pushing myself to do what feels difficult, I may never become a master; I will, however, become the best musician I’m capable of being, given the circumstances. Deliberate practice isn’t just doing what feels hard, however. It involves being strategic, ordered, and systematic in your efforts. Having a plan, and sticking to that plan is the intersection of where purpose meets the practice.

With a well defined sense of purpose, and a strategic plan, there isn’t much we can’t accomplish. The only thing to do is to begin. I may regret that over five years of wanting to learn to play the guitar, I haven’t been successful, however there’s no time like the present to start the work again. There’s an old Chinese proverb I found a while back (I’m fond of quotes) that encapsulates this all nicely. It says, “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” What are you looking to accomplish?

Text referenced:

Baer, D. (2014, July, 3). New Study Destroy’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/new-study-destroys-malcolm-gladwells-10000-rule-2014-7

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search For Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Company.