Schooled: You’re Never Too Good to Ask For Help

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1. Stripped bare.

I’m standing in the middle of Michael Port’s cavernous living room in New Hope, PA. Vaulted ceilings and a towering wall of windows open to the woods beyond. Port, in his typical jeans and black t-shirt, sits in a single chair, silhouetted against the glass. Glasses on. Facing in.

I am, in no uncertain terms, on display.

Which is exactly where I’ve asked, with great unease, to be.

He watches my every move, listens to my every word, notepad in his lap. Observing. Scribbling. I flail about. Fumble for words, awkwardly moving. Working desperately to maintain a modicum of respect. He stops me. Over. And over. And over.

Look out, not down. Don’t move unless you have a reason. Stay here for just a moment longer, then move slowly stage, er, kitchen right. What if we told it this way, instead of that? Good, wrap your arm around your imaginary mom, but let it drop once you begin to talk. Say it more humbly. Slow down. Okay, now give it a moment. Back to the beginning. And again.

“You know,” I want to say, “I am a professional! I’m normally better than this.”

Yet here I stand. A complete and utter spaz. Stripped bare.

It’s what I hoped would happen.

Every uncomfortable moment.

It is, in fact, pure gold.

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2. At what cost, mastery?

I’m sitting in my hideaway recording studio at Good Life Project HQ on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Professor K. Anders Ericsson, a man whose work has fascinated me for years, is my guest. The mics are on.

Ericsson’s research is the source material for what’s become known as the 10,000 hour rule. The idea that it takes 10,000 to become world class at anything. Which, I’m about to be told, is wrong on so many levels. A misinterpretation and misapplication of his work. He details the how and why in his latest book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

This is not news to me. What intrigues me, though, is something different.

It’s the question I’ve wanted to ask Ericsson since I read his original research more than a decade ago.

Regardless of the time it takes to become extraordinary, what is clear is that we are still measuring in units of thousands, if not tens-of-thousands, of hours. Not just doing, but practicing in a very specific, focused, iterative, critical way.

Deliberate practice, Ericsson calls it. Jamming with the band, the weekly poker game, getting lost in a canvas or playing doubles on the weekend is lovely. But it isn’t what he’s talking about, practicing with the intent to analyze and improve. Focusing on one specific thing. Doing it. Repeating it. Critiquing it. Trying to do it differently in a way that is better. Ad nauseam. Day in, day out. For years, if not decades.

Deliberate practice, Anders offers, is not often “fun.” It is hard, slow work. Experienced by many as anywhere from grueling to unforgiving. Regardless of the domain, this, he says, is what is takes to be great.

My question, the one I’ve been so keen to ask, is…

If this practice is so often experienced as unforgiving, bordering, at times, on brutal, what makes someone keep doing it long enough to reach mastery?

Beyond some kind of masochistic impulse or domineering parent, what keeps the best of the best bleeding onto the page or the canvas or the strings or court long enough to be mesmerizingly good?

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3. The teacher.

Nobody gets there alone. Especially to the top.

Time-served is one piece, offers Ericsson. But the critical skill of figuring out what’s working, what is not working and how to do it better, that’s a brutally hard thing to do in a vacuum. From the inside, looking out. You are always capped by both your own skills of perception, and the constraints of the data-set you’ve accumulated along the way.

An accomplished teacher not only changes practice into deliberate practice, she makes it what Ericsson calls “purposeful practice.” She not only sees what you cannot, but is able to draw from a vastly larger set of experiences, models and solutions.

This lets her help you progress in three ways:

Removing blindness – she makes your blind spots visible. She lets you see what you previously could not.

Installing new models – she is better resourced to share entire approaches, methodologies, ideas, strategies, tactics, nuanced shifts and tweaks that can shortcut the path to expertise, leapfrogging past the time it would’ve taken to figure out the same via experimentation.

Blending process with progress – here’s where the answer I’ve sought for years takes shape. She creates and eases you through an incremental process, designed to offset the angst of deliberate practice with a series of small, yet meaningful wins. stoking the embers of what Harvard Business School’s Director of Research, Teresa Amabile, calls the greatest motivator of all. Progress!

This last bit, number three, is the thing that’s not often covered in the literature or popular press. The quiet progress approach. Guided by a generous and wise teacher, often seeking not the limelight, but the shadows, and leaving a lineage of masters in her wake. These are Mr. Miagi’s of the world, with their elusively simple, yet profound and progressive demeanors and methodologies.

Though, they may be all around us, we don’t hear about them often, because they don’t seek to be seen. And, they don’t provoke attention, sell clicks or gather eyeballs on the level of the maniacal teacher tyrant who breaks down and torments disciples, only to watch them inevitably implode under the weight of the teacher’s oppression and their own self-mutilation.

The right teacher or collection of teachers can be a powerful catalyst for action. Even when that action is hard and must be sustained for a seemingly impossible amount of time.

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4. Schooled. 

If a teacher is so important, why don’t we continue to seek them out for life?

Truly extraordinary teachers, just like truly accomplished people in any field, are not easy to find. Once found, they often have extreme limitations on access. When you can help people accomplish what nobody else can, word travels.

Still, that is not the main barrier for most of us.

What is, then? Fear and hubris.

It’s not just about finding a teacher, it’s about being willing to be taught.

Being a student again. Owning our ignorance. Being the novice. Being vulnerable to criticism. We’ve worked our whole lives to become the person who knows something.

Surrender, the further we get into life, is a brutally hard pursuit.

Few of us stand bare with grace.

Me, included.

Yet, it is the place our next best selves take root.

We’ve all heard the proverb, when the student is ready, the teacher will arrive. I still don’t entirely buy that. The teacher may never arrive. You may have to go out and find her.

But, what I have come to believe is this…

Until we open to the possibility of being taught, until we surrender to the notion that, as far as we’ve come, we need help to take the next step, until we are willing to not just ask for, but also receive help, whether the teacher arrives or not is irrelevant.

Because, until that moment, we will not see them. Will not invite them in. Will not allow ourselves to step into the discomfort of surrender, nor bask in the gift of growth.

We will continue on, closing ourselves to possibility. And, wondering when and why everything started going sideways.

I’ve been told, many times, the best of the best always have a teacher.

Now, some 50 years into life, I’m finally beginning to understand why.

And, learning how to drop my own shields, bit by ego-bandaid-ripping bit.

Easy? No.

Essential to who I yearn to become and what I want to create?

Indeed.

What about you?

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27 responses

27 responses to “Schooled: You’re Never Too Good to Ask For Help”

  1. Laure Merlin says:

    Oh yes! So vulnerable and true, seen through, helped forward…

    This greatly needed Mentor is such a dream character for me! One who cares enough for my vision, my mission and my potential and is willing to see how to build a bridge from the present reality.

    Almost had it with your dear Scott Dinsmore, blew my slight chance with Seth Godin, now really curious to be inspiring and open enough for the next Awesome Mentor to stick 😀

    In the meantime, I’m doing my best to be this Mentor for quite a few international au pairs plus the attendees of my local Live Your Legend Meetup.

    Keep spreading the love, care, and revolutionU, Jonathan, and in case you’re searching for one on one mentees, I’d be crazy honored to be considered 😀

  2. Patricia Gabay says:

    So abundantly true. Such valuable wisdom. Lucky to gain at any age.
    Thank you Jonathan

  3. Karen Wright says:

    One of your best, my friend. I’m honoured to count you among my own teachers.

  4. Martin Spieldock says:

    You might also want to read “Mastery-The Keys To Success And Long Term Fulfillment” By George Leonard Author Of The Way Of Aikido. An excellent book by an Aikido Master

  5. Liz says:

    This is a great article, thank you, Jonathan. I loved the Ericsson podcast too. This makes me think about the mentor/teacher relationship… I’ve worked with a therapist for about 4 years now. With her help, I’ve transformed into a healthy person (physically and mentally). I now love myself and continue to grow, be curious about myself and the world. I used to be extremely anxious and filled with so much fear that there wasn’t enough room in my head and heart to make changes in my life. My therapist has been a gift… I’ve definitely worked hard to get to where I am, but couldn’t have done it without her guidance. I have now started my own coaching practice to inspire and help people to overcome their own fears and ultimately live happier, healthier lives. I have been on the lookout for a mentor, but this article made me think, is my therapist my mentor? She isn’t critical of me unless I’m too hard on myself, but in a lot of ways, she helps me feel confident in my process of developing myself and teaching people how to accept and love themselves. She also knows me to my core. I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this!

  6. Ah yes, asking for help, such a difficult concept for so many. I teach this in my work helping people learn about “Living Well When Unwell’. People really wrestle with one when their physical health lets them down. You’re correct though in your mention about receiving; asking is one thing but the receiving factor is huge. I’ve learned to master this over the years simply because my desire to be purposeful is greater than the limitations of my physical body. I think of this as “receiving with grace”.
    Invite + Allow = Growth.

  7. Yes, but finding the right mentor is not always easy. I have had various coaches and each one brings something. Probably the most important thing is their absolute faith and belief that I am capable of doing the work I do and doing it better. It’s important not to depend on a teacher tho’ and follow your own intuition…..
    Thanks as always 🙂

  8. Lisa Young says:

    I was reading a collection of essays the other day that I really didn’t like, but there was one quote that really gripped. Me. The writer of this particular essay pointed out that excellence – mastery even – is the result of what he called “Fractal boringness” – boring upon boring growing out of boring. The idea being that the person keeps doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over until they know it SO well, understand every nuance of it, and can pretty much do it in their sleep – which makes it boring for them, but exciting for us – precisely because we don’t have the acumen or patience to do all the boring repetitive tasks that lead to the ultimate mastery of their craft – whether that’s speaking or writing, or (in the example of the author) creating a world-class violin.

    And as Ericsson so rightly points out, it’s deliberate, intentional, focused practice – the kind bent on improvement, expansion, and disturbing the status quo – even if the tweak makes it only fractionally better in some way.

    Only people who really care about it will work that hard. At least, that’s been my experience with my clients and in my own work.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yup. That was another part of the conversation with Ericsson. Having a bigger aspiration also plays into the motivation for purposeful practice, at least for some.

  9. I loved everything about this article, Jonathan. I believe one of my strengths is that I am an eternal student. My area of study, the body and movement, is endless and I am in awe of the number of teachers who can show me the next level. One of my challenges is choosing which path to take, which mentor to follow, rather than zig zagging about. Thanks for taking me on your journey with you.

  10. Michael Port is a class act.

    I learned so much when he joined us on the talk show — and later, when he and his wife both did — but it was how he handled a scheduling mishap that made me a fan. You would’ve thought he was talking with Oprah for how gracious he was!

    Sounds like you’re in good hands, Jonathan.

  11. Loved this Jonathan! So glad to see Teresa Amabile in your article. She’s one of my heroines and I feel like her book, The Progress Principle didn’t get enough attention.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      So agree, Maggie. I often wonder if the reason is because the idea of gentle, daily progress just isn’t sexy enough. No matter how much the research supports it’s efficacy.

  12. Yvonne says:

    This made me teary. Your humility has been one of my favorite things about you – that you, someone I consider my mentor and a master at your craft, continue to cultivate a beginner’s mind, allowing yourself to be stripped bare for feedback so that you can see your blind spots work on them to get to the next level is truly inspiring! I mean you could easily rest in your oars with all your accomplishments. But you choose to show up again and again with a growth mindset. Thank you for being such a positive model for me and for making the mentor female in your story. Subtle but oh so powerful paradigm shift! xoxox

  13. Phil Best says:

    This was a very interesting and inspiring read. Thank you! And… there’s something in it that troubles me: the idea of practice being gruelling, unforgiving, hard or boring… This is not my experience as a musician who has practised daily, usually for several hours, for decades to consistently increase my skills. It is a deep joy and I encourage my students to find the wonder and comfort that I experience. I guide them to have faith or confidence in the models and techniques that we use and most importantly in themselves. The humility we discover when we surrender to a model or set of principles and apply them rigorously to hone our craft generates a loosening of the ego that is beyond pleasurable, it is magical. It is as much meditative as cognitive and when consciousness is fully switched on like this, it is not austere but calmly exhilarating.

  14. aga says:

    Flexibility is a part of life mastery. Beautiful article.

  15. Lila says:

    Thank you for sharing your honest, naked self. I think being stripped bare is a scary, beautiful and necessary thing for our greatest growth and work to evolve. I’m about to begin a program in a few days with someone I think may be one of those teachers/mentors who will strip me bare. And while that thought freaks me out, it’s also a very enticing thing. Thanks for continuing to open my mind and stir my heart with your words and ideas, Jonathan.

  16. Michael Port says:

    You are a teacher’s teacher, Jonathan. You gave me the opportunity to learn while teaching you. Working with you was a true joy.

    – Michael

  17. Kristina says:

    True, so many dimensions to the teacher-student relationship. Love your highlight on the quiet progress approach! All the best, Kristina

  18. Evie says:

    Is it awful that I am so often encouraged when someone who seems so together shows his/her falling so short of…togetherness? Thank you for sharing this. It reminds me we are all made of the some stuff, just trying to figure out how to relax and bring out the best of it, stumbling along the way.

  19. Debbie Reber says:

    TOTALLY resonated…and also slightly terrifying, as I have a sense I have many such moments of being stripped down in my future 🙂 Great post. Thank you, Jonathan!

  20. proBUGtivity says:

    The ego rip is slightly more painful when you have to learn from someone younger to you. Although, i have noticed (& started to appreciate), a certain grace in my older colleagues asking questions when they don’t know the answer.

    I am trying to let go and ask for help/advice by re-casting the process in my mind as one of the key blocks in the blueprint for success.

    Great post!, btw

  21. Karen Thomas says:

    reading you is always a wild ride of sensations for me and I am GRATEFUL for that. the enthusiast in me immediately thrives to talk to you. oh! how I would love to continue this conversation! so much to talk about when learning is the issue.
    but at the same time, the part of me that cannot be named is brutally humbled and begs for silence.
    profound admiration for you Mr Fields.

  22. James says:

    That was a really great article. Just loved reading it!