So I got an email from a good friend today asking if I'd send him some ideas about how I go about getting good at things that he could use for a lesson he is teaching this week. Let me count the ways.
1. Get inspired. It's important to find something you can really get into. This can either be because you have a friend who has a certain hobby or you've seen someone do something really amazing that makes you think, "Wow, I wish I could do that." Having genuine interest is a critical foundation that will keep you motivated when things get hard.
2. Get humble. We often think it's the people who are great at things who are prideful, but it's often just the opposite. Most people never make it past step 1. Why? Because we don't like to lose. We don't like to fail. And if you try your best at something, whether you win or lose, suddenly everyone knows what you're really made of. It's safer to just stay home, and say, "I could do that if I really tried," than to try and prove you can't. But safe gets you nowhere.
3. Fail. And get used to it. No one wins Olympic gold their first time out to the track. And even the best in the world fall off the balance beam. Those world-champions have worked, and fallen, and failed for 15 years in preparation for the moment when they really make it. There are injuries and coaches yelling at them. And the reason they're on that podium is because they had the humility and discipline to keep training regardless of it all. It's not that the successful are a different species that never gets discouraged. It's just that they keep working despite it all.
4. Be honest. If you do well, admit it. If you do poorly, admit it. Then ask why. The ability to analyze your own results is critical. You cannot always rely on a coach or mentor. Your friends won't tell you the truth. You have to do it yourself. Why did I fail? Was it overconfidence? Was I too slow? Inconsistent? Did I get angry? Lose focus? Simply outmatched? When you can find your own faults in an honest way, without belittling yourself, that's when you know what to work on tomorrow. And when you can admit that you did well, and why, that's when your personal feedback loop can offer motivation and critique independently, without the need for external validation. This is the only sustainable system.
5. Learn from people who are better than you. This won't work unless you've gotten past step 2. Find someone who is much, much better. Watch what they do. Copy it. Analyze it. Look for patterns. Then find someone else even better and repeat. The more perfect the example, the better. You might feel uncomfortable copying someone's style, but when you've learned from 15 different people, and taken the best parts of each, suddenly you have a unique style and approach. It's ok. Don't reinvent the wheel.
6. It's not sorcery. We often think that when someone can do something amazing, it's because they know some ancient Chinese secret we can never discover. The truth is, to be a master, one simply needs to master the basics. The best tennis players in the world aren't doing flips and hitting behind their back. They are doing the same strokes taught to the clumsiest beginners. They've just done their forehand so many times, and have developed such consistency, that they almost never miss. Same with their serve. And their backhand. And their chop, etc. It's about basics and consistency.
7. Stay humble. When you start winning, it's easy to call it good. But as soon as you decide you're really good, you've stopped improving. And there's always someone better. If you never lose, that means it's time to move on to a level of difficulty where you consistently fail again. And remember--you're not doing this to beat someone else. You're not doing it to impress anyone else. It's just for you.
8. Endure. It's hard. People often think others are born with skill. That it's somehow all a gift. There are some with more natural talent than others, but every single person who succeeds worked to get there. And every single person can become better than they are. With work. You may get sick. You may be tired. You may not have someone there telling you you're doing great. And the voice in your head may tell you you'll never make it. But in the end, all that matters is the goal, and if you keep your eye on the prize, all else will fall away, and you'll keep doing the small things that add up to success. Just keep swinging your forehand. Soon you'll be able to beat every single person who has not put that time into theirs. And then you'll keep on. You'll start at step one over and over, and do it all again. Just because you want it.