13 Responses to “Wanna Get Good at Something?”


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  1. Sorry, I don’t buy this line of reasoning. There are any number of old guys around the poker table who have been playing for 40 years, and who are as bad today as when they started. Perhaps worse, as repetition can just as easily ingrain a bad habit as a good one. Likewise, most people on the Internet write every day, and Sturgeon’s Law holds just as strongly as it ever did.

    If you want to improve, it’s not just the hours, it’s also the attention to craft. And while most people will improve under these circumstances, there’s an osmotic barrier between “good” and “great” which many people will not be able to pass.

    If you want to be great, sure, you have to practice daily for ten years. But you have to start with talent, *and* put in the time.

  2. avishp

    Well yeah. I see you missed the part where I said, “practice consistently and with an eye on improving just a little bit every time,”

  3. Missed a part? Missed a part? I’ll have you know, I’ve been reading for 38 years, and I’m *damned* good at it.


    Point being: I think it’s related to talent whether you *can* improve a little bit every time without hitting a plateau. When I practice regularly on the clarinet, I can improve from abysmal to mediocre, but no better; if I stuck with it over a lifetime (which I haven’t), I might die with a skilled ear approximately that of a talented high school player.

    Seems to me that it’s self-evident that you might be universally able to train people to be *funnier*, but that’s different from being universally able to train people to be *funny*.

  4. avishp

    Well Jeff, I respectfully disagree with you. I have no doubt that people can learn to be funny. It’s a mindset, a way at looking at the world, and a reflex. (Actually, that’s an unfair point; I think all people are already funny, they have just suppressed it). If the student is willing, the reflexes can be trained.

    To your point, go practice the clarinet for four hours a day for a lifetime and then tell me that you are only as good as a talented high school player. Or at least read Gladwell or Colvin and explain why you disagree with the 10,000 hours theory. Outside of genetics (being tall enough to play in the NBA, having the ideal fingers for clarinet playing, etc) I stand by the fact that it just takes hard work and time.

    Maybe you feel that that kind of learning can only happen as the brain develops in youth. Frankly, that’s a depressing worldview.

    Go back to your original comment. Are you honestly going to tell me that some people just happen to be good at poker, while others aren’t? They can’t learn the skills to be excellent poker players?

    In my experience, teaching people improv, martial arts, and communication, this stuff can be learned and people can get good. And (again, not theoretical but in my experience) the single most limiting factor to to their advancement is the mindset that “they can’t,” or “it’s not me.” Once I cam change that, they get good (with time and effort).

  5. I think you’re engaging in an unfair rhetorical technique — it’s not possible to prove the negative, and that’s what you’re asking me to do. Your theory states that people can become expert at anything *if only* they’re willing to work at it hard enough, which means that for any counterexample, all you have to say is “they didn’t work hard enough.”

    I haven’t read the books (although I’ve heard Gladwell discuss his theory), and I’m sure I’d agree with some aspects of the point. The crux is that we’re debating “getting better” versus “becoming expert”. Nearly everyone would get better with 10,000 hours of practice, not everyone comes anywhere close to becoming expert. To use an unfair counterexample which is still illustrative: all adult Americans have 10,000 hours of practice speaking English, but few are orators.

    You say “outside of genetics” as if that’s a small point. But genetics set exactly the theoretical maxima that I’m discussing. Everyone can improve to a point on anything they care about, but the point at which diminishing returns set in *is* based on talent and the quality of their instruction. Everyone hits these limits when they begin training every talent; in my opinion, most people’s learning curves will stay below an arbitrary level marked “expert” in most things.

    The trick, IMO, is to determine what innate talents people *do* have, and to play to those. I’d like to think that everyone’s got one, but that might be pollyannish. Far less so, though, than believing that all people can do anything if only they “work hard enough.” I think you encounter daily evidence that this is not true, and there’s a very depressing blame the victim mentality in your worldview for all mediocre skill sets.

  6. Shawn Mason

    Jeff, “success leaves clues”. While talent helps it is definitely a mindset…a way of thinking…a pattern of thinking. If you find out what the guy does whom you want to mimic and you think, act, and feel the same way with enough practice and determination you will get as good or very close. It does require forward thinking and passion but to simply say it can’t be done is usually the rhetoric of the naysayers who simply won’t get off the bench and commit. I choose to believe. Also your illustrations are weak…10,000 hours at doing something with a mindset of “learning”. Most people speak English with an assumption of, “there is no more to learn”. Speaking does not equate to communication just as reading does not equate to understanding. Good luck with your mentality but I choose a different more energizing one.

  7. Actually, Shawn, I think yours is the side that’s negative and demoralizing. Anyone who fails at their goals simply didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t want it enough. Which means that whenever you fail, it’s your own damn fault.

    Me, I’m thinking that there’s 1,000 ingredients you need for success, and hard work can only build so much of the recipe. Doesn’t matter how much I practice at running track, either I’ve got fast twitch muscle fibers that will let me compete at an Olympic level, or I don’t. Can I work hard enough to beat people my age who *don’t* practice? Sure.

    You and Avish seem to be arguing, “Just bang your head against that brick wall hard enough, and it’ll come down.” You can do anything, yessirree, yes you can. This strikes me as kindergarten pabulum; it’s good for children, but adults should know better. Instead, know your talents and proclivities, and do what you love for its own sake. Sure, you’ll get better at anything you practice… but if you want to be *great*, well, it helps to know yourself before you pick at random from the menu.

  8. avishp

    Jeff, you say I am am using an unfair rhetoric because I can always say, “if you don’t succeed it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.” Aren’t you using the same rhetoric, as you can always say, “well, if anyone does succeed it’s because they had some or all of these 1,000 other things”?

    You also off handedly dismiss the fact that you have not read the materials that site the studies I am referring to. While we are all arguing from our own intuition and anecdotal experience, I can actually site a study where a group of students were tracked over years at their ability on the violin, and the only distinguishing factor the researchers found was the number of hours of dedicated practice the student fell. The students fell into three groups, based solely on the number of hours put in. i.e., there was not one example of a student who put in significantly less time and rose to the same level of success as someone who did. That’s not kindergarten pabulum; that’s data.

    For some reason this discussion has shifted from “wanna get good?” (the title of the post) to “how to be world class” or “Olympic level.” I get that there are genetic advantages in some things, like sports (then again, Mugsey Bogues played in the NBA at 5’3″). I am not going to concede that it’s impossible to reach world class by hard work. However, the point is about getting good. Really good.

    Your “Just bang your head against that brick wall hard enough, and it’ll come down,” misses the point completely. The entire premise of practice and work is improvement – to keep working and learning from our mistakes. If there is a wall that needs to come down and I do nothing but repeatedly bang my head against it and hope that it will eventually come down, then that is foolish. At this point you would say, “oh well, the wall didn’t come down when I banged my head against it. I guess it’s not meant to be. I’ll go do something else.” I would say, “well, my head didn’t work. Let me try my fist. No? Let me try a kick. Nope. Ok, how about a hammer? Not really? Ok, here’s some tnt. a-ha!”

    As far as negativity, sure, you can look at Shawn and my view points as negative because we’ll look at someone and say, “it’s your fault you didn’t work hard enough,” but it’s all in the phrasing. I would say, “you can do anything, if you’re willing to put in the work. It’s not bad if you don’t, but success takes dedication.” If my view is negative, then yours is bleak and disempowering. You would look at some one and say, “give it up, you’ll never be able to do that.” There’s a fine line between “realism” and “negativity.” Face it: If I am negative for saying “you didn’t work hard enough,” you are at least as negative for saying, “you’re not good enough.” At least my statement offers recourse.

    Just because you label my viewpoint with a pejorative term like “blame the victim,” doesn’t make it negative. I guess you could say I do “blame the victim.” Only let’s replace “blame” with “hold responsible” and “victim” with “individual.” I do hold the individual responsible for his or her own success.

    And at what point did I say that you should ignore what you love? No, the point is that if you love something, or want to do something, or want to get good at something, then you have to work at it. If you love doing something but don’t care about getting better at it (like me with playing basketball or, I am assuming you with the clarinet), great! No worries – just have fun. But if you want to get good at something, you have to put in the time.

    Interestingly, I would say to not worry so much about talent and proclivities. Ideally, what you are already good at will align with your passion. But if it doesn’t, well, I say go for the passion and put in the time and effort to build the talent for it. Which brings us full circle to the link I posted in the original article. Guy wanted to get good at digital painting, so he put in the time, everyday for five years.

    Do I know people who lament their lack of success but never put in the work to get really good? Yes. Do I know people who want to be published writers but never seem to actually write anything? And when they do, they expect their first work to be recognized for its brilliance and then when it’s not they give up because, “it’s not my thing”? Absolutely. Speakers, comedians, improvisers, and martial artists who claim to want to get better but never put in the hard work to do so? Rather they just show up and go through the motions and hit plateaus? Absolutely again.

    Keep in mind, the title of the this blog is the *Motivational* Smart Ass. To me, what’s motivational is telling someone they can do anything, but being honest with them and saying that it takes dedication and work. If they are willing to put that in, then yes, they can achieve. Since this is my blog, I get to be right on that definition.

    At this point we are going to have to agree to disagree. You have your world view, and I have mine. I am not going to convince you, and you are not going to convince me. I appreciate you sharing your points, but unless something completely new is brought to the table I am respectfully signing off from this thread…

  9. Luke Bonfield

    I’ve been playing guitar for 5 years now, I don’t think I’m talented at all and first picked it up with the sole purpose of being able to play along and/or show off to a guitar buddy who inspired me to pick it up in the first place. Early on I discovered Joe Satriani, one of the greatest technical guitarists out there and who I now model myself after as far as my guitar playing goes, and is the goal of what I want my skill level to be at in X years. So I started getting excited about playing the guitar for a more technical and professional level, beyond the rockstar fantasy that I assume everyone has, and after the first year I slowly began putting in an hour to two hours each day, up from less than 4 to 5 hours a week. Eventually I got married and moved away to college with the wife and, without internet, took solace in the guitar, spending even more time each day with the guitar, and while I’m sure I would have advanced quicker with better, proper practice (and less “just messing around”), I still surrounded myself with enough educational materials to arrive at where I am now: under the firm belief that people like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Jimi Hendrix, and so on don’t (didn’t) go calling themselves talented, they didn’t just pick up a guitar and magically be awesome at it, it took years for them to develop before others would notice the unique creativity they brought to the art. And all of this from witnessing how horrible and untalented I was being changed by time and the (most important) want to properly educate myself. (Where most people go wrong, like the poor argument of most people having 10,000 hours in English and few being orators, is that unless you have a plan to be good at something and to properly educate yourself you’re of course going to go absolutely nowhere besides the tiny little discoveries you make.)

    In my understanding, talent can be two things: quick understanding of principles and practices so that your “10,000” hours is maybe “8,000”, giving you 2,000 hours to perfect/create your own sound as Hendrix did, and/or it’s simply your brain looking at (in the case of guitar) the fretboard and the strings in a creatively different way from everyone else and instead of playing something the way everyone else plays it, you’ve found a way to expand or alter by way of abstract thinking. And even then, is that really talent or just intelligence/understanding and creativity/left brain? Talent is just a term we give something that does not exist, it’s a word, much like justice, we give something that covers a variety of things that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking is almost like something real and tangible.

    In response to the guy saying his legs would never work like the professional sprinters; I agree that there are physical advantages in life, but that is hardly talent and that most of the time these physical advantages have been gained by the hard work of the 10,000 hours of practice. I’ve been working my arse off trying to get the speed and dexterity that metal guitarists/Satch has, not understanding how a human’s fingers can move so quickly, and it’s only now, after toning and establishing the muscles in my left hand from hours of practice and play, that I finally understand and can easily do what I thought impossible just a year, six months ago.

    No, it’s stupid to think that the term “talent” is anything more than a way for people to cope with never having committed to something so fully as this or that person did; which is fine, it’s horrible that society says we all must invest ourselves in this or that, but talent is generally ALWAYS the reason given when a person is good/great/amazing at something, when the truth is the talented person (in my opinion) probably doesn’t want recognition for his genes or something he had no control over, he/she wants recognition for the sheer amount of time they put into the craft sitting by themselves in some corner fiddling, learning, doing the hard work no one else much cared to do.

    As far as what we deem to be greats goes; the truly “talented”, that could easily be anybody simply because it’s society that decides who these people are for the most part: we live in a world where the worst bands are valued or at least make the same or more money than Led Zepplin did, where artists are being praised not for their proficiency but almost for their lack of hours committed to the art, and all because of the randomness under which things become cool and “in” in our society; it’s a natural progression perhaps thanks to the internet and the amount of people on the planet, but either way to say that people are “born” with being able to be great in this or that is the dumbest thing to me with the on e exception of agreeing that people of course have strengths and weaknesses: they can just turn those on their heads and make their weaknesses their strengths and then become experts in their weakness.

  10. avishp


    Thank you so much for your very in-depth and well thought out comment! You definitely demonstrate the progress and success one can have by simply putting in the time and focusing on getting better little by little.

    Congratulations on your progress – a lot of people could learn from your example!

  11. That’s so true. This is something that I am dealing with at the moment.
    I find my self saying ‘I really want to be good at something’ and I’m sure I am – its just hard to choose one thing out of several things.
    Great post. I wish you all the best.
    LiLi Xx

  12. Avish

    Hi LiLi – thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment!

  13. I know Avish gets excited when he gets passionate responses (arguing?) about any subject matter, because of the attention drawn to his “cause.” 🙂

    No matter whether you agree or disagree with Jeff Porten, the guy is obviously very intelligent, and his “arguments” have brought about much further clarification upon this particular subject matter, by causing others to respond in their particular ways with Jeff’s responses to them.

    A special thank you here to Avish for providing the “impetus” and place for this “intellectual sparring match” to occur. I LOVED IT! 🙂

    All the best,
    Charles Stewart

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