The best and the quickest way to become a Master in anything is to obtain instruction from one who has mastered what you want to learn. While a certain degree of success can be obtained by self study and practice, first rate instruction will most of the time produce better skills in a shorter period of time with a minimal level of frustration. Those who insist on learning on their own will spend many needless hours recreating the wheel.
For mastering most skills, there’s nothing better than being in the hands of a master teacher, either one-on-one or in a small group. While there can be value in the reading of books, watching videos, listening to tapes, etc. there is no better form of learning than having individual instruction from a master teacher.
It’s an old Joke that appears in many versions but always sends the same message. An old couple from Texas in a Cadillac gets lost on New York’s Lower East Side on their way to a concert. They stop and ask a homeless fellow, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice” he tells them.
The unspoken secret of those who are Masters is that they do not practice just to get better at their skill. They practice because they love to practice and because they love to practice they get better. And the better they get the more they enjoy practicing the basic moves that make them a Master. It is a paradox and runs counter culture with all that our obsessive goal achieving society preaches.
Someone once ask me, “When can I stop coming to sales training classes”, my response was, “When you think you know it all and there is no more to learn – then it is time to quit. I have been a student of sales for three decades and I have not learned it all”.
The Master of any game is generally a master of practice. In his prime, Larry Bird was perhaps the most complete basketball player of all time. Bird, a three time NBA Most Valuable Player was asked by a reporter after the Celtics won the 1986 championship what he planned to do next. “I’ve still got some things I want to work on”, he was quoted as saying. “I’ll start my off-season next week. Two hours a day, with at least one hundred free throws”. Most professionals would take a couple of months off to hunt or fish but not Larry Bird. He loved to practice.
During his years with the Celtics, Bird was known for getting on the court an hour or two before everyone else. No question that he liked to win but he liked to practice even more. According to his agent Bob Woolf, the reason he liked to practice so much because he just simply loved the game of basketball and enjoyed being on the floor. Said Woolf, “He does it just to enjoy himself. Not to make money, to get acclaim, to gain stature. He just loves to play basketball.”
To practice regularly, even when there seems to be no apparent progress, can certainly be frustrating. But if one continues to practice there comes a time when practicing becomes a way of life and something that you treasure and look forward to. Once you accept this practice becomes a peaceful meditative experience you embrace and never want to quit.
The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender. This means surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own ego and accepting the fact that no matter what level of success you may have attained thus far there is still much to learn. Those unwilling to surrender their ego will build a wall that learning cannot penetrate and will remain stuck where they are.
Surrender means suspending your level of disbelief about what is possible and what is not. It means opening up to possibilities that you may have never considered or thought about. It means clearing your mind of certain beliefs you may have held sacred and becoming open like a child to learning new ways of thinking and acting. It means accepting that in the beginning of any new skill develop that you will feel awkward and foolish.
In my sales training I tell all new clients that what they will learn from me will be different and more effective than what they are currently doing, but before they can becomes Masters that they must first be willing to experience some minor humiliation and discomfort about learning new ways of selling. I also tell them that they will most likely take two steps backward in their selling skills before they take one step forward. Those unwilling to experience short term failure seldom make any long term progress. I tell them that in order to succeed they must surrender to the process and trust that what I am teaching them will produce more effective long term results. Some are willing to do this but most are not.
To become more effective at selling you must be willing to take your game apart and start from scratch putting it back together. Tiger Woods did this a few years ago by completely changing his game. For two years he worked on his new swing and didn’t win. Once he reinvented his swing and got it going he began to win. Course all of this was prior to his recent sexual indiscretions that have affected more than his swing. Point is, if you want to move forward in anything you must be willing to accept that you will have to go backwards before you will move forward.
In the 1970’s Jack Nicklaus let it be known that he never hit a shot without first clearly visualizing the ball’s perfect flight and its triumphant destination, “sitting up there high and white and pretty on the green”. A successful shot said Nicklaus, is 50 percent visualization, 40 percent setup, and only 10 percent swing. We know from numerous studies done over and over that mental visualization has the same effect as actual practice. Case in point.
Air Force Colonel George Hall was captured and held as a POW during the Vietnam War. Colonel Hall spent 7 years locked in the dark box of a North Vietnamese prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Many of those imprisoned in those horrible conditions didn’t survive. But rather than let “reality” dominate his mind, Colonel Hall made another choice. He understood the power of the mind as well as the Power of Imagination.
Colonel Hall loved to play golf.
Every day Colonel Hall “checked out” from reality and played a full round of golf in his mind. He set his “reality” aside and visualized himself on the golf course. Each and every day he played a perfect 18 holes of golf in his mind.
One week after his release from the POW camp he entered the Greater New Orleans Open and shot a 76.
It was the BEST round of golf he had EVER shot and he hadn’t played for seven years EXCEPT in his imagination!!
One of the exercises I have clients do in my sales training classes is to have them write out questions or objections they hear on 4 by 6 note cards and write their rebuttals to those questions or objections. Once they do this I have them close their eyes and imagine that they are in front of a real prospect who voices one of those objections and to visualize in their mind how they will answer or respond. This is a very powerful learning modality that unfortunately, too few take seriously.
5. The Edge
Master’s of any craft, sport or profession are practitioners of the “slight edge”. They are zealots of practice, are dedicated to the fundamentals of their craft and connoisseurs of small incremental improvement. At the same time these Masters are likely to challenge previous norms and limits, to take chances for the sake of improvement, and even become obsessive in their pursuit of excellence. Clearly, true Masters embrace both of these paradoxical motivations. It is not a case of either or. It is both.
Chuck Yeager, the hero of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, is considered by many to be the best pilot who ever lived. When ask what does it take to be a great pilot, to have the “right stuff”, Yeager, the proponent of the plateau and traveler of the endless path, said, “It takes experience”.
Yet Yeager, who “explored the edges of the universe”, was willing to push the envelope and defy death in his pursuit of excellence.
What Yeager said and did was to both test the edge of the envelope and walk the fine line between endless practice, goalless practice and those alluring goals along the way. No an easy thing to do.
Playing on the edge is a balancing act. It demands that you know what you are doing. It demands the awareness to know when you’re pushing the limits. This conscious decision to play on the edge requires many years of instruction, practice, surrender and intentionality. And after that? More training and time on the plateau. The never ending path continues.