“It isn’t so much that geniuses make it look easy; it’s that they make it look it fast.”
—Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
This week I re-read a 2010 piece by David Wong, author of John Dies at the End, called “How The Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World.” Wong laments how movies with training montages give us a skewed vision of how hard it actually is to get good at things:
Every adult I know — or at least the ones who are depressed — continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.
We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.
Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.
My 5-year-old son started piano lessons and I think it’s the first time he’s had to actually practice anything and he hates practicing already, and I’m not sure what the hell to tell him. If I say, “Well, don’t you want to be as good as Kraftwerk?” he’ll look at me like I’m a complete moron and motion to his Garageband tracks, like, “I am as good as Kraftwerk.”
Kids his age love to go around thinking that they’re the best in the world at things, and really, who wants to tell them otherwise? You don’t want to discourage them from doing things they love. But the switch towards taking on a practice and discipline is admitting to yourself that you suck and you want to get better.
I was chatting with my friend Adam and he mentioned he was taking drum lessons again after 20 years. He said he’d forgotten the joy of the practice –> suck a little less –> practice –> suck a little less loop.
Years ago I read an interview with actor Jason Segel and he talked about his willingness to be bad for as long as it takes:
I’m willing to be bad for as long as it takes, until I’m good….I don’t have a sense of shame. I just don’t. If I’ve hurt someone’s feelings, if I’m mean to somebody, I’ll lament over that for days. I’m that dude. I’ll lose sleep over mundane stuff. But I don’t really have the thing of, “Oh, I’ve embarrassed myself.” I just don’t understand why I would stop trying to play piano even though I’m not good at it. I want to be good at it. So why wouldn’t I keep playing?
How do you cultivate that willingness to be bad?
Related reading: “Practice, suck less”