How do you get to Carnegie Hall? I’ve actually never been there so I don’t know. But as the joke goes, instead of directions to finding it, the punchline is “Practice, practice, practice.”
Practice makes perfect – that’s true. But practice also makes good and great on the way. There’s only so far one can go on natural talent, and the rest is up to hard work and training. This applies to all sorts of areas, and I found myself thinking about a lot of them recently.
I was in New Hampshire for five days, and it was a great vacation in all senses of the word. We went skiing, watched movies, played board games, and listening to Adam’s grandparents’ consistent trickle of stories.
On our third day on the mountain, I hurt my knee and had to rest for the afternoon. To entertain myself, I had only my thoughts and hundreds of strangers who love snow. Some people are really good at skiing. As a beginner, it’s really easy to look at that and feel like they’re all naturally gifted and get frustrated at your struggles. Instead, it’s much more productive and satisfying to respect the amount of practice and time they invested in developing their skill, and let that motivate you to do the same.
You can only go so far on talent alone. The rest must be gained by hard work. I haven't read Outliers, but I've heard from many people that Malcolm Gladwell came up with the fascinating claim that to master something, you must have invested 10,000 hours of practice. My good friend Brian (close to or beyond that landmark on the piano, I think) summarized well the relationship between practice and natural talent: Not everyone who puts in 10,000 hours will be Bach, but you can't be Bach without 10,000 hours.
Over lunch, we were talking about a skill that’s often harder to look at in that context: being nice. So I posed the question, “Would the world be a better place if everyone was happier and nicer or if everyone was richer?” We agreed that happiness is the way to go, but I claimed that most people spend too much time trying to get richer and not enough time being nicer. It’s hard to be nice. It takes effort to be patient and forgiving, and it’s easy to look at role models like Fred Rogers or the Dalai Lama and call that unattainable and futile to pursue. It's hard to see them as just masters of an art that any one of us can work on. It takes practice to become a better person. Just like it takes effort to become a great pianist, or skier, or singer.
If you've got a few minutes, check out this 1969 testimony of Mr Rogers as he tries to defend PBS funding in front of the Senate
You can't be good at something without hard work, and that applies to the realm of personal development as much as any other. Take a step back and think about what you might have spent 10,000 hours on. Maybe it's something not so favorable, like worrying, or pessimism. You're always getting better at something. Whether you want to get better at it is another question.