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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Essential to who I yearn to become and what I want to create?
What about you?
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