The Road To Mastery (How Long Till I’m Good?)
“It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock n roll.” – AC/DC
You’ve failed. You tried, failed and wondered why you’re not good enough. Maybe you don’t have what it takes. Maybe “those people” have better parents, grew up in a fostering environment. “Actually,” you reason, “it’s karma.” Maybe that’s all true. Despite these outward conditions, I think we all go through a similar inner experience on our way toward mastery.
I’ve tried many things in my 33 years. It started with girls. Maybe it was violin. In fact, I think I started on those two roads on the exact same day. That’s unsurprising because I’ve always been involved in multiple fields at any given time. Naturally, I’ve made slower progress than someone who may have specialized at one thing. When it takes awhile to get good at something, you find yourself pondering the process; the past present and future. “This is how it was when I started, this is what I have to work on now and in X amount of time, I’ll be good.”
I want to outline my own experience in the field of music since that’s what I’ve been doing for longest, put the most consistent effort into and in what I’m presently involved. You might be a Type A specialist in which case this may not apply to you. This model has reared it’s head time and time again in my life in the fields of socializing, poker, martial arts and fitness. Here it is:
The Subjective Model of Getting Good
0-1.5 years – “Noob” You suck. You probably have an interest and you might have some natural talent. Overall though you have no skill. This fact is irrelevant to you because you’re overcome with enthusiasm. After all, you’re a beginner; you’re supposed to suck. No one will criticize you (to your face). If you tell someone, they’re like, “Cool.” At this point I have benefitted from acquiring some sort of training – whether from a website, a class or personal coaching. There’s so much you don’t know that you don’t know that teaching yourself at this point will probably be fruitless.
1.5-2 years – “Blue Belt” At some point you start becoming good. Not “great” good but better than your friends who don’t do what you do. You can play something for them (if you’re a musician) and they’ll probably be kind of stunned. If you’re into martial arts, you can probably beat up your friends. Those friends now brag about you. That’s because they know someone good but you’re not so good that they hate on you because you’ve destroyed their ego. You’ve probably inspired them a little bit. You’ve also learned the lingo of your field and generally are less of a failure. A musician will probably play some full songs at this point. A martial artist might have a belt or two (depending on age and art). A poker player won’t go broke each time they sit down. You’re tense but you pull things off. You’re no longer a newb but can now recognize newbs for what they are.
4-5 years – “Good” This stage is the breaking point; it’s by when most quit. At this juncture you could easily have decided you’ve found your passion/calling and decide to go full-time. You can at least visualize that possibility. A poker player will start winning regularly at lower stakes around here. A martial artist will be a threat in some way to virtually anyone (but probably won’t be due to acquired discipline and confidence). Musically, depending on your peer group, you’re one of the best that you personally know. You might be in a band and you probably have some skill that no one else in your group has – be it writing, playing or performing. You win the talent show. The key word here is “winning.” You’re no longer constantly thwarted by your overwhelming ignorance. However, here is also where you decide whether the effort involved is worth it or not. You’re seeing that you’ve put in a lot of time and pain. You realize you can’t become a master at everything so now you sink or swim. Nothing wrong with that – honorable discharge. This is really the transition point between being better than the general population and becoming good in your chosen field. Choose wisely.
7 years – “Better” Nothing really changes between being “good” and being “better” other than exactly that. If you’ve made it through “good” then naturally you’re going to get “better”. You’re not an expert yet but you know you’re good. You’re better than you were when you were good. It’s really self-explanatory. The little victories are the rewards here. You’re still making regular, consistent progress and that motivates you. You’re starting to experiment with domain-specific nuances beyond what beginners comprehend. In guitar playing that might be greater use of alternate tunings, strange rhythms and time signatures or you might begin really emulating a certain player or style. Your skill level allows you to focus in on smaller details that before may have eluded you. In jiu jitsu you might start taking a liking to x guard or De la Riva. I wouldn’t say you’re “specializing” just yet but you’re leaving the mainstream here and there to explore other avenues and tributaries. The key word here is “style”. Again, you’re not yet locked into what you’ll ultimately become but you’re definitely defining the beginnings of it. You’re beyond basic technical proficiency so the more emotional and aesthetic aspects begin to take relevance.
10 years – “Disappointment” After I’d been playing guitar for about seven years, I looked around at some more advanced players in my network and saw that, after 10 years, many of them were what I, at the time, considered “good”. The thing is though, it is really a matter of perspective. What you perceive is proportional to your experience. In other words, someone who looks amazing to you might look like an idiot to someone with twice their experience. Depending on your age or whatnot, this might be news to you. The bottom line is that 10 years is a nice round number which has no correlation to reality. 10 years and 10,000 hours are concepts that sell books. So many things go into what and where you are after a decade that it’s impossible to predict the outcome. In my case, I hated practicing. I liked writing and playing with my band but, after the 2 year mark, I never practiced really. Therefore, when the 10 year mark came around, I wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. It’s called a “learning curve” for a reason, besides. The more time you put in, the more time and effort you need to improve. Because you’re already good, your hunger might have died a little. You might coast a little. You might chill and feel like, “Ah, whatever.” Those little things cost over the long-term. Regardless, a little chill is necessary because if you’ve made it this far then you’re probably in for the long haul – life; no one can sprint forever and the clenched fist is ultimately relaxed. I’ve seen this in brown belts who’ve lamented their deceleration of progress. The only thing I’ve made it 10 years to is music – specifically guitar. But in that span I’d also involved myself in recording, singing, writing, bass playing, drums and perhaps a little sampling. All that experimentation you do at around year seven is going to diffuse the linear ray of focus everyone begins with. That’s not a bad thing but it does result in a little disappointment at your diamond anniversary. The key word here is “chill”. You’re now somewhere in the middle of your field’s vastness and there probably aren’t any clear landmarks in sight. You know how to swim but you’re no Michael Phelps. This is a good time to relax for awhile and prepare to deliberately dive deep because that’s what you’re about to do.
15 years – “Domain Master” Somewhere along the line between 10 and 15 years you decide to really get good at something. No more waiting on the right circumstances, the right teacher or anything. You decide, “Ok, now I study.” You realize that waiting or wanking or hanging around isn’t getting you anywhere. It was around this time I decided to begin learning music theory. It was also around the time I moved away from my hometown and begun finding my own identity as a person and as a musician. I started discovering music that I liked that was more-or-less unrelated to what any of my initial group of friends were into. In other words, I was on my own. This is a tough phase because you begin standing on your own feet. One might think that standing on one’s own feet is the most natural thing in the world. Any toddler would tell you different were they able to speak. I found this to be a particularly painful period. Notice the longer gap between this phase and the previous ones. In a way, it might be like earning your black belt or first degree. You’re no longer experimenting with styles and variations – you’re acquiring them. I don’t use the word “master” here to represent the highest achievement available to you. I use it in the sense that around this time you’re no longer depending on others for your progress. You begin to value your own opinion as much as the experts. The key word here is “sovereignty”. Essentially it’s where you become YOU as a player as in “so-and-so plays like this.” This is, of course, after the transformation you’ve gone through. Somewhere between this and the next step you have a clear vision of the overview of your domain. You see how things fit together. You see the “why” behind how new practitioners are trained and how those methods either helped or hindered your progress. You see behind verbal conventions like the words “rules” and “should”. You can see the links between related fields; their similarities and differences. It’s a good time to be alive and practicing. You reap the rewards of new innovations because you’re ready to receive their gifts.
15-25+ years – “Professional” I started playing violin when I was eight years old. I’ve taken time off here and there and didn’t used to like practicing. 25 years later I’m trying to make the leap into professional activity. I feel I’ve recently covered the ground of “Domain Master” and I’m ready to parlay that insight into creating value for others. While I still have things to work on (of course – that never ends) I can now make things which I know others can enjoy and find useful. I’m not inhibited by creative blocks and I see the current masters as inspiring competition rather than unfathomable titans. I can look at experts in other fields and feel a kinship with them and feel like I share their insight into what goes into a life of consistent progress. Of course, the levels and diversity of specialization and skill are limitless. In the life of someone who’s deliberately developed themselves there is a beginning but perhaps no end. There might be a peak time where an individual or team performs at their utmost and there may be a denouement but I can’t foresee an end to learning or the enthusiasm that comes from practice. For me, at this point, it’s not even really about results as it was in the earlier stages. Now it’s just about the joy of being able to practice my craft. It’s no longer practicing in the sense of “to get better” but practicing like a Doctor practices medicine or a monk practices meditation. The work is now more-or-less done for it’s own sake. Sure, there are financial considerations but those are really besides the point – for me at least. I see it as really just a gift to be able to create regardless of any outcome be it social acceptance, professional status or financial gain. The key word here is “enjoyment” and I’ll just leave it at that.
So there you have it – my personal journey in music (with some other excursions thrown in). Again, you may move faster or slower. You might see things in a different order. You may see things I don’t and vice versa. That’s great because, as I mentioned, there are so many possible variations in any given field and they’re constantly shifting and evolving.
In the beginning, you should always start with something solid and reliable. You don’t really need a teacher if you have great confidence in yourself but you need to pick a single thing and stick to it. Later you can jump around and combine debris to make any kind of Minecraft-like raft, boat or yacht only to destroy it later and salvage it for parts.
In any case I hope this was helpful. Maybe you’re looking to start something new. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle and you need confirmation of your skill. Maybe you’re a grizzled veteran and I remind you of yourself when you used to think you knew anything.
That’s kind of the paradox – the more you know, the less you know. It’s humbling. That humility is important though because like Rener Gracie said, “We’re all a white belt in something.”