Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hobbies, Vocations, and Pursuit of Mastery

"How long will it take me to be good?"

A lot of people ask me that when they sit down for their first guitar lesson.

I've been teaching for 20 years, and here's my answer (and this applies to learning anything, not just guitar): it depends. On you. I can't plop guitar-playing ability on your head. You can't buy the ability to do something. I will guide you, show you the way, but you must do your part.

So, tell me this:

  • What do you mean by "good?" (able to strum a few chords and sing along? Able to play the lead guitar part of the Freebird solo note for note? Concert classical guitarist? Able to play with your teeth, while the guitar is on fire and you're holding it behind your head? What are your goals?)
  • How much do you already know? (Did you play another instrument, or do you already know some guitar chords?)
  • How motivated are you? Are you able to put time into this outside of lessons? How much time? what other priorities might you have that you might have to balance with your pursuit of learning to play guitar? (If you're a teenage dude who wants to learn guitar to get girls, you're probably very motivated and have lots of time to practice. If you're a married middle-aged guy, your motivation is probably to have a nice distraction from your stress- not as motivating as the biological drive to "get chicks"- and you probably have lots of things interfering with your practice time).
  • What kind of practice habits do you have? Will you be just playing guitar during that time, or also watching tv? Will you focus on learning new skills and not just playing the stuff you've already mastered?

The 10,000 hours theory
People can learn an incredible amount of information and develop a great deal of skill in a short amount of (calendar) time, if they are able to devote themselves to it, and give it full focus. I've taught a few very focused 18-20 year old guys more guitar in one schoolyear than I learned in my first 10 years of playing (of course, I was 8 when I started. Some concepts my brain was not ready for yet. And, though I practiced quite regularly, I was not playing guitar to attract the opposite sex).

The best-selling book "Outliers" (Malcolm Gladwell) touts the rule of "10,000 hours." Meaning it took 10,000 hours of study and practice a specific task in order to master it. One example: The Beatles, who performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time (meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule). Beatles' biographer Philip Norman says, (By the time they returned from Hamburg) "'they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them."

There's even an improv collective in NYC that has a program called "10,000 hours" where you can sign up for improv jams and hone your skills, getting closer to that 10000 hours needed for mastery.

Let's do the math.
If you were able to work 10 hours a day, 365 days a year on your new skill (not impossible, but you would have to be pretty obsessed and have some viable means of financial support), that would be 3650 hours/ year. Meaning it would take about 3 years of total immersion in a task to reach complete mastery. Most people can't put in those kinds of hours, unless their job IS also the skill they are working on.

I recently heard someone say at the PIT (People's Improv Theater) that "Somewhere around the 10-year mark of doing improv, it all suddenly starts to click." 10 YEARS?! If we do the reverse math, that's 1000 hours a year, or 20 hours a week (with 2 weeks off!), and we're back at 10,000 hours. Theory seems valid.

Is mastery necessary?

Now, I want to bring up one other thing. Is it necessary to master everything you do? Well, of course not. I don't believe it possible - or necessary- to achieve complete mastery in everything you do. Am I a great housekeeper? No. But my home is also comfortable and fairly clean. Am I a great cook? No, not even a good one. I'm not even that good at dressing myself. Sometimes I'm just not stylish. But I don't really care about those things. I put enough thought into them so that I'm functional, but I reserve my energy and brain space for other things.

And sometimes the pursuit (or imposition of the pursuit of) mastery sucks all the fun out of a previously enjoyable pasttime.

At times, I have sabotaged myself by being a "Jack of All trades, master of none." Meaning, I was pursuing mastery in too many things at once. One of my college professors told me I was like "a race horse going in 5 directions at once." That is another trap that can sabotage success, and one I've fallen into numerous times: lack of focus.

Am I a Master of Anything?

I have put a lot of hours into songwriting, but have I mastered it? Well, no. I've written songs I'm proud of, and that have done well for me, but I know I still have things to learn.

Have I mastered guitar playing? No, but I'm good enough to accompany myself, play a few fancy instrumentals and teach beginner and intermediate players in most styles.

Have I mastered teaching? Well, I'm pretty good, if I do say so myself. I believe people get their money's worth from their time with me, and I get a lot of customers (students) from word of mouth (recommended by other students of mine). (BTW, I'm pretty sure I've put in 10,000 hours teaching).

Performing? The hours I've spent on stage and in workshops, and on live radio have transformed me from frightened mouse who apologizes for each song before playing it (or signs up for an open mic then runs away), to mostly confident and fairly funny performer who pretty consistently gets great reviews (and is often paid quite nicely). (BTW, I've probably put in 10,000 hours performing, though not in as short a time as the Beatles). I'd say I've reached and then reset my goals in the performing area more than once (in other words, achieved what I thought was success, then set the bar higher). There's always more to learn, and I keep learning.

Forget the 10,000 hours theory

FYI, you can't wait until you have already mastered something to start doing it. Doing it is how you master it (or, rather, "get good"). As one book title (sitting on my shelf) says "Ya Gotta Be Bad Before Ya Can Be Good." (Which reminds me, thank you old high school and college friends, for praising me and supporting me while I wrote all those depressing songs! I think you actually genuinely believed in me- thank you!).

So, whatever it is you wish to do, just do it. Find someone who knows how to teach, and knows the skill you want to learn (just because someone can DO something... don't assume they can also teach it. Ask around for a good teacher. Oh the stories I could go into here on music teachers from hell!).

Don't worry about how silly you might look, or "what if I make a mistake?" You will make mistakes. That's how we learn. Just figure out what made YOU want to pursue your passion, and what success means to you. And it doesn't need to take 10,000 hours to reach your goal. Mastery is not always the goal. Sometimes competency is the goal. It's OK to have a hobby. You can do something just for enjoyment.

If success to you is being able to strum and sing folk tunes, and you learn to do that in 6 months, GREAT! Now you have a skill and a pleasant social one at that. If you then decide you want to go further with the guitar, great. Or if you then decide to learn folk dancing, super. Or if you then decide "I'm just gonna sit on my porch and play these folk tunes after dinner every night," awesome. You define the passion, the motivation, and what success looks like.

I'd love to wrap this post up with something well-written and profound, but... that's about all I have to say on this for now. Please feel free to chime in with comments.