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.