Bob and I were having another of our rambling conversations about oil and music and theology and family when Bob asked, “If you could wave a magic wand and become best in the world at one specific thing, would you choose your career or one of your hobbies?”
We both agreed: we’d use it on a hobby. Bob said he asks that question often and everyone says the same thing, hobby. “So where would you wave it?” he asked again.
As a writer? Maybe. I’d like to have a worldwide audience, but being the world’s best comes with expectations. Would I be content investing hours each day to writing? And if I did, wouldn’t that turn writing into my career, no longer a hobby? Would that ruin it for me?
Or would I wave the wand to be the best teacher? I’ve always wished I could learn languages quickly and do voice impressions … I don’t know if that would make me a better teacher but I’d have more fun teaching.
Bob said his answer would be playing the guitar, and he suspected mine would be music as well. Would I wave my magic wand to become the world’s best trombone player? Maybe. But I’m only interested if it’s jazz.
Part of the problem with answering the question is this: absolute phrases like best in the world are paralyzing. For example, it’s hard to tell someone your favorite movie, easier to list a few of your favorites. What if, instead of best in the world, Bob changed his question to ask: “If you could wave a magic wand and improve something by 100%, what would you choose? Where would you double your current skill level?”
That sent me down the question-asking rabbit hole. What if I knew for a fact that I could double my skill level at something if I put in my 10,000 hours of directed practice? Would it be worth the trouble?
Now, unlike waving a magic wand, I have a scenario that’s much more likely. I’m certain I could double my skill level at – anything – if I put in the practice. Unfortunately, that puts the pressure back on me and my own desires … takes the magic wand completely out of the picture. What am I, personally, willing to do to get better?
Anders Ericsson wrote this in his book, Peak, the reason most people don’t possess extraordinary capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity, but because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rest of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of good enough.
Becoming a Beginner
I had lunch with David this week, and as always he challenged me. He brought a couple of magazine articles he’d copied and highlighted because he knew they were the sort of thing I liked to read and think about. And also because the articles spoke to recent personal changes both of us have experienced while reading the current Iron Man book, A Praying Life, by Paul Miller.
One of the magazine authors, James Petersen, described a core principles of life: “One should always be on a learning curve.” He wrote that “to be on the learning curve you must be willing to be a beginner again, to wrestle with skills not entirely under your control.”
That sounds easy enough except people like me go to great lengths never to be a beginner at anything. Certainly not a beginner in public. Like most men I will step aside and give up opportunities rather than let people see me, and judge me, as a beginner.
David reminded me that I had recently started taking trombone lessons for the first time in forty-two years and wasn’t that a beginner move for me. He was correct. I made the decision to start over, listen to someone else’s advice and be willing play like a beginner in front of people because I knew that’s what it would take to get better.
As it turns out, David is one of those friends who listens too closely to the stories I tell, and then remembers those stories for too long, and reminds me of them all too often. I’m blessed to have friends like him.
If I want to break free from the homeostasis of everyday life, and radically improve what I do, I have to become a beginner, whether that is in music, or writing, or teaching, or loving, or even engineering.
How about you? Would you be willing to be a beginner at something to break through to the next portion of your learning curve? What would be on your list … learning a new language, writing a novel, cycling, juggling, skydiving, throwing pottery, drawing, piano, guitar, stand-up comedy?
Care to join me? Let me know which learning curve you’ve jumped aboard and we can hold each other accountable. Maybe, together, we’ll double our skills.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32