How to Become Exceptional By Focusing on What Matters Most
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How to Become Exceptional By Focusing on What Matters Most

Author: Thomas Honeyman

Date: June 23, 2015

Reads: 2,530


Thomas Honeyman is a musician, music blogger, songwriter, and entrepreneur in Los Angeles, CA. A graduate of the University of Southern California, he studied cognitive science and music industry. In 2014, he co-founded FindMySong, a popular online music collaboration platform. His work has been published by Elite Daily and Hypebot.

The last article we published on focused on growing your audience like a startup.

How to Grow Your Fanbase Like a Startup (Part 1 of 2)

In that post, I argued that musicians should dedicate as much time to marketing as they do to improving their craft. This advice is modeled after the practices of successful startup companies. These companies will regularly dedicate half of their time and resources to marketing, well before they’ve even created their product.

Over on Reddit, several commenters challenged the idea of a 50/50 ratio in music. One of my favorite comments came from TomHUK:

“Many of the artists in today’s world are solo artists who are trying to hone their craft to compete with thousands of other musicians who are working the same kind of sound they are so it seems somewhat counter-productive to be putting in as much time trying to sell your most recent work when the time might be better spent honing mixing skills or learning a new mode to write your next piece in.

Time is an extremely valuable resource especially when talking about a passion or hobby you can’t commit too fully. Perhaps I’m basing this too much on personal experience but I feel like 50-50 is a pretty unrealistic ratio.” — TomHUK on Reddit

This is a great point. As pointed out, the 50/50 ratio won’t always be the right decision for you as a musician. Why not?

To use the 50/50 ratio, your music must be competitive.

In other words, if your music isn’t good enough yet, then no amount of marketing will save you. In the remainder of this post, I’ll outline what to do if you’re not there yet, and how to build your talents by focusing on deliberate practice.

Not Everyone Should Market Their Music

When a startup begins developing their product, they’ll start marketing at the same time. It’s why companies start blogs and hire sales managers long before they ever have something to sell. In music, that’s like marketing your album right when you start recording it — releasing teasers on Instagram, building a mailing list, and making sure that when your album comes out, there’s an audience ready for it. It’s a smart move – the 50/50 rule in action.

But this is not where most musicians stand.

Most musicians are not ready to record a professional album or to go on even a small tour. There’s a long time in between when you start making music and when you’ll be ready to compete with all the other artists trying to land the same gigs or sell albums in your genre.

There’s simply so much good music being released every day online that it’s no longer enough to be just good. To compete and have a real shot at making a living, you need to be at least proficient, and it’s better if you’re exceptional.

The process of acquiring expertise in a skill progresses through 5 stages. It’s called the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. In this model, people progress from novice (learning to hold a guitar) to advanced beginner, to competent (sing in tune and on time) to proficient, to expert (mastery of your art).

My advice last week was geared towards proficient or expert musicians. If you’re not at this point yet, you’re not ready to compete. When you aren’t ready to compete, you’re not ready to market. And instead of following the 50/50 rule, you should focus as much time as possible on improving the fundamental skills of your craft.

So how do you become exceptional? As it turns out, the answer is deceptively simple.

Becoming Exceptional

The study of excellence has a long history. Until the 19th century, most people believed that talents were innate — a gift from God, or the gods, or your Muse.

In the early 20th century, psychologists realized just how much influence the environment has over our behavior, and the field of behaviorism dominated. It taught that people could become anything they wanted — if they worked hard enough, in the right environment.

This culminated in Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 Hours” rule — the idea that true mastery is attained after ten thousand hours of sustained practice. Hell, Macklemore even wrote a song about it!

The past few decades have taught us even more. It turns out that hard work and determination, even for 10,000 hours, isn’t enough. Innate talent does play a significant role. One person may take 5,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a skill, while another takes 20,000 or more. But no matter the explanation, what is no longer in question is the importance of deliberate practice.

We’ve all experienced the difference between regular practice and deliberate practice in our lives. Going to the basketball court, throwing some free throws, and dribbling around will help you get better at basketball — to a point. But a plateau is swiftly reached, after which no amount of time on the court dribbling around will help you grow. Deliberate practice is different.

Deliberate practice is when Kobe Bryant goes to the court at 4:30am and shoots one thousand free throws, analyzing each shot to understand what went right and what went wrong. Feeling his way through every shot, Kobe comes to understand something about his performance on a deep level, in a way the amateur playing around on the court does not. This is deliberate practice in action.

It turns out that, while some people may improve faster than others, extraordinary performance is impossible without deliberate practice. Most people don’t practice deliberately because it’s painful. Sitting down in your chair with a guitar and slowly, painstakingly running through the same scale for an hour, concentrating on the sound of each note to make sure it sounds perfect…this is deliberate practice.

But it’s not nearly as fun as playing Stairway to Heaven and jamming out with a friend for an hour. Not many people want to sit down and put in the necessary time, with the necessary focus, to be exceptional.

It’s this deliberate practice which is essential to becoming a musician who is good enough to earn a living through their art. However, the point of my last pair of articles was that even this is not enough. Once you have reached a level of proficiency enough to be paid for your work, you have to market yourself. You have to dedicate yourself to building an audience. This is just as hard as learning your instrument, and it’s just as important if you want to earn your income making music.

This takes me to the next point. My article was targeted towards songwriters and performing artists; musicians who need to build their audiences. But these lessons apply to people in careers across music, from management to engineering to performance.

There are many different careers in music, and each of them requires a different set of skills. An effective artist manager will find their talents are far different than an effective guitarist. But across all disciplines, there is a foundational rule to being exceptional: master the fundamental skill(s) of your discipline. To be an amazing guitarist, master the technique of playing the guitar. To be an effective mixer, master arrangement, critical listening, and a handful of essential tools like compressors and equalizers.

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Final Thoughts

If your skill is in a place where you’re ready to share your music with the world and make a career of it, then I believe you should follow the marketing framework and 50/50 rule I talked about in How to Grow Your Fanbase Like a Startup.

If, however, you’re not there yet: look for the one or more fundamental skills of your music and practice it deliberately. Over time, you’ll grow to a level of proficiency. You’ll be ready to share your music with the world, and they’ll be ready to listen. When you get to this point, please don’t be ignored; spend as much time developing your marketing as you do continuing to improve your musical abilities.

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