I’ve never believed that anyone has sold their soul to the devil or taken a magic bullet and suddenly by magic gained the ability to play the guitar. Picking up any skill as difficult as this is not the result of being chosen as worthy of having a special gift. You want to know why this myth as succeeded for such a long time?
It’s the only way to make sense of it to those who don’t have it themselves. Anyone can have the ability to play the guitar like whoever their favorite guitar hero is. I believe that with every bit of my soul.
We believe in this myth only in order to avoid the hard work that goes into it. This myth also helps enhance the mystic of legendary musicians like Mozart, Hendrix, Liszt, and the Beatles. Why is that? Because dehumanizing these godlike musicians gives us another reason to avoid the work.
Once we believe this it’s hard to imagine Michael Jordan ever missing a game winning shot or Michael Jackson once having trouble performing the moon walk you can find plenty of stories about anyone who has excelled at anything not having that ability at one time.
So how can anyone destroy this belief and start relating to a brilliant musician that inspires them? By finding other legitimate reasons why they’re as gifted as they are.
Now I do believe in a few things that’ll enhance any budding musician from the start, which I will get into. Having giant hands to play chords and a higher IQ can give you a slight advantage, but only a slight one. We should recognize these factors as good enough reasons for playing really well, but not the ultimate reasons.
I’ve internalized this belief by studying the lives of many artists, musicians, leaders, and athletes that I admire. It all started out of curiosity and I suggest you learn about the people you admire. Get on Wikipedia or browse through Amazon and find something.
I’m going to use examples from two books that gave me a lot of the ideas I’m about to relate to you, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated.
Nobody Gets By With A Negative Attitude
I highly recommend you go out and get a copy of Outliers. It talks about why Asians have superior math skills because of the huge amounts of grains they’ve farmed and kept track of, how being born in January in Canada can make you a bad ass hockey player, and how you’re more likely to crash an airplane if you’re from Singapore. As you can see it’s highly entertaining and fascinating.
One of the first ideas that I loved is that being a genius might set you back, especially with a negative attitude and little social smarts. Gladwell told the story of Chris Langan, a man with a ridiculously high IQ who wasn’t able to get a college degree and become an academic. (p.95)
To make a long story short Chris thought his IQ was enough to jumpstart his career, but the fact that he failed to fill out a financial aid form and reschedule an afternoon class stopped him cold. He continues to study and write but he has no chance of getting his ideas heard despite his intelligence.
Gladwell then talks about Robert Oppenheimer. This was the man who would later lead the Manhattan Project during World War II, the effort to create an atomic bomb, who ran into the same sort of difficulties as Langan. Langan nearly poisoned his professor when he was at studying at Harvard and for a long time afterward was seen as off balance.
How did he continue studying and later develop the atomic bomb despite all this resistance? Oppenheimer didn’t take no for an answer and simply had an unshakeable confidence in himself. Langan on the other hand couldn’t get around the gatekeepers.
I’m avoiding recounting the entire story verbatim but there is one important difference: Oppenheimer was raised in an environment where anything was possible while Langan believed that some barriers could not be crossed.
Think about the implications of this story. It told me that having talent is not enough. One recognized that his talent was not enough to keep him going and that he had to have a positive mental attitude and social smarts, while the other did nothing.
There are tons of examples of this situation throughout nearly every discipline. Picasso was a much better self-promoter than Van Gogh. Mozart was used to fraternizing with nobility due to his frequent travels around Europe performing before them, which really helped when he needed funding to get his music heard and written.
Your environment is a huge factor but not THE factor to succeeding. Beethoven was a very irritable person who pissed off a lot of people because of his nature, and this nearly kept him from succeeding. Some environments even have the opposite effect. Tchaikovsky’s parents wanted him to be a civil servant, Berlioz a doctor, Mendelssohn a lawyer. The walls put before them were their inspiration in this case.
The implications for this day and age are that we can’t hope to succeed by settling for being a brilliant musician or songwriter.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Another great idea that Gladwell developed in his book is the 10,000 hour rule. This rule says no one can reach mastery of any study unless they have at least 10,000 hours of study and practice put in. Some examples include Mozart studying composition for 10 years before producing his first “classic” work, the hockey players born during January having more time to practice because of cut off dates for making the team, and Bill Gates having access to a computer he could practice programming on before anyone else.
My favorite example, because the Beatles are my favorite band, is that John and Paul started playing together and writing songs in 1957, developed their playing skills during 8 hour gigs in Germany, and didn’t create their greatest albums until 1967. According to their own accounts that I’ve read in the Beatles Anthology book and Can’t Buy Me Love is that they were really bad when they arrived in Germany. It took them a long time before they built up a repertoire of songs and started building their identity as a band.
This can seem like a really intimidating goal if hard work is not your thing. If you reframe it as the way to get an advantage over the competition and refine your skill this is excellent news. Now anyone can simply take the time to learn and practice and be just like the Beatles or Mozart!
Get There Early, Or Better Yet, Get Started!
The last idea I want to take from Gladwell is that extraordinary opportunities exist for those born at certain times in history. He takes the birthdays of men such as Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, and J.D. Rockefeller and shows that they were born at a time where Wall Street and railroads were launching the careers of these men. Because they were growing up during this time they were able to succeed. A combination of the other factors I’ve talked about also enhanced their success.
The birthdays of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs followed a similar pattern. They were growing up and living in a time where Silicon Valley was making its place in the world. Combine this opportunity with Bill Gates’ 10,000 hours of programming practice and you’ve got the perfect storm for the rise of Windows.
I’m not using these examples to advocate that luck is all that matters. These individuals were proactive and prepared for the time when they would be needed. This all explains the success of Lebron James who grew up when Michael Jordan and the super athlete reigned (and still is), Tiger Woods whose dad was able devote a lot of his time to becoming an expert golfer, and even Mark Zuckerburg who developed Facebook when social media was just beginning to exist.
There are tons of examples I could mention. Chess Records, Atlantic, and Motown were all developing at a time when the genres they specialized in were jumping off. The rap genre was waiting for giants like Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and later Eminem to dominate the 90s, and it’s grown even further. One more example is that Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Francis Ford Coppola were rising during a time when directors were being given more autonomy in their films.
The biggest opportunity we all have today is that the rise of social media and iTunes, the lowered costs of music production, and the decline of the major record label and the RIAA are allowing anyone with the drive to succeed in today’s industry. It will be really interesting to see how and why the artists of the next decade come about, but I believe it will be mostly because of this great opportunity.
The Elements of Deliberate Practice
Geoff Colvin discusses the elements of deliberate practice (p. 66) throughout his brilliant book “Talent is Overrated.” They are:
- It is activity designed to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help (I disagree with the last part)
- It can be repeated a lot
- Feedback on results is continuously available
- It’s highly demanding mentally whether the activity is intellectual or physical
- It’s not much fun (I disagree with this too)
Again I suggest you go read this book since it’s brilliant and you’ll get his ideas unfiltered. Learning to play and make music adheres to all these rules but in different ways. Let me show the ways they’re different first: there are tons of examples of brilliant musicians who got along without a teacher by imitating others (Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins for example), whether or not you sound like the original recording is great feedback, and playing music is damn fun.
This is not true for everything and everyone. Colvin relates how Chris Rock went and presented new bits of a comedy stand up for a New Years show months beforehand in order to refine the material. Pro athletes constantly seek the advice of trainers and coaches to perfect every aspect of their game. I personally go back to all my books in order to keep learning, and I always seek new music that’ll challenge my perceptions.
Everything else I totally agree with. It’s useless to learn anything once and forget it, the material must be challenging or you’ll get bored, and you should obviously adapt and move forward as you learn.
Learning how to practice the guitar has been a challenge for many because who really knows how? Most guitarists act aloof and rarely talk about how they locked themselves up for practice. They have all done it and they’re really just trying to conceal all the hard work they’ve done in order to make themselves seem more brilliant. This is not the truth and it’s unfortunate because so many players believe they just have to learn the chord shapes and start partying.
There is no one practice method that has universal success for every player. Some, like Steve Vai, like to play lots of exercises while others chose to learn lots of songs. It’s all about repetition and constant challenge.
Yes It Can Be Fun, But It’s Frustrating
Guitar playing has not always been fun for me and it won’t be for you, but it can be IF you change your attitude about it. There are times where I didn’t know where else to go or who to study and learn from. There’s plenty of times I’ve doubted my abilities as a musician and a songwriter, but I realized that they are good for you.
Actively seeking out new problems satisfies our need to succeed according to Colvin (p. 190) and I couldn’t agree more when I look back. That right there is the key to practice in my opinion. Every day you must find something you can’t play or a piece of music that you can’t analyze. That’s where you must work.
Passion Is The Most Important Thing
The very last thing I want to talk about is the most important. It drives everything else that I’ve talked about and borrowed. It is the amount of passion and determination everyone has within them waiting to be unleashed. (p. 192)
It has always been thought simply to exist from the start, and never created or nurtured. This is a horrible mistake to make in figuring this out. This leads lots of people to believe that a musician has achieved success because of the desire for fame, wealth, and social status. Several famous musicians have but few ever stick around. Just look at the 80s rock scene.
Instead it’s the internal rewards that help motivate the biggest success stories. This is why Warren Buffett still invests in the stock market, the Beatles kept making music after they broke up, and why Michael Jordan came out of retirement twice to play more basketball. They’re all motivated by the fact that they are good at it and enjoy excelling at what they love. Sure it gives them the other stuff but it’s never enough.
Can you see why the music industry has failed so many times now? Being more concerned about marketing the newest fad has hurt the ability for more great music to be created. Apple is another great example. They created the iPod, Macbook, iPhone, and iPad not only to further the success of the company, but to create great products that satisfy the needs of their consumers.
Now I want to ask what do you believe? It all comes down to the choice of whether you want to accept the information I’ve given you or keep believing that some are “chosen” for success. Here’s a quote from the end of Colvin’s book that explains it the best for you:
Do you believe that you have a choice in this matter? Do you believe that if you do the work, properly designed, with intense focus for hours a day and years on end, your performance will grow dramatically better and eventually reach the highest levels? If you believe that, then there’s at least a chance you will do the work and achieve great performance. (p. 205)
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about natural talent. Does it exist or not?