Practice is the Point.

Over the years, I’ve asked nearly 6,000 guitarists what their goals are.

“Music Theory” 
“Playing songs by ear” 
“Sweep Picking” 
“Chord Progressions”
“Soloing”
“Shredding fast”
“Improvisation”
“To create my own music and release albums”

Or this one, which is perhaps the most common:

“The ability to play whatever I want, whenever I want, with complete confidence, consistency and control.”

There’s a theme here…

We want it all and we want it now.

But what if you don’t need it?

What if being able to do all the things on the guitar isn’t actually what you want?

Over the years, I’ve come to think that the process of pursuing mastery itself is its own reward.

I know that might sound like something you’d see on a 4-dollar Hallmark card.

It might sound like I’m giving you permission to stop pushing yourself.

But that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting that aspiring and striving for more is the point.

There is no arrival. 

There is no final destination.

Feeling frustrated about your lack of ability is part and parcel with the process.

You want it. 

But you can’t have it. 

Not yet. 

You have to work for it. 

And it is the work that gets you there that counts, whether or not you ever get there.

The clouds won’t part once you have finally mastered alternate picking (and what does that even mean, anyway?)

It’s often the case that we want to master certain skills without first defining what mastery actually means for us.

And because we convince ourselves that we’ll be happy only once we reach our goal… we don’t enjoy our practice along the way. 

And because we don’t enjoy it and because it feels like we aren’t improving fast enough – we are more likely to stop practicing. 

And because we stop practicing, we ensure that we’ll never reach our goals. 

And that’s a discouraging and even despairing thought. So we then feel ashamed, guilty of giving up and wasting our potential. 

And because we have stopped practicing and have lost progress, we start to see the whole process as pointless.

Do you see the perilous cycle that’s at play here?

We aren’t going to get to where we want to go, so why bother?

We want it all and we want it now. Or bust.

But… 

We know that delaying gratification is a good thing.

The infamous Marshmallow test demonstrated that long ago.

But what if the gratification can come from the process of practicing itself?

Whether or not you get to where you want to go, the entire thing is intrinsically rewarding. 

That means its worth doing for its own sake. Achieving your goals is just a nice bonus along the way. 

Besides, your goals can shift and change. 

Indeed, in the words of the immortal McKenna, “as soon as any given goal or benchmark is achieved, it’s abandoned or redefined in favor of something else.”

Imagine that you reach your goal.

Imagine that you achieve everything that you ever wanted on the guitar. You have all the skills you can wish for, and have created everything you intended to create.

Are you going to stop playing? 

Of course not.

I know I won’t. Unless I’m dead!

You also might imagine that now that you’ve reached your goal, the real fun finally begins. 

But would it really be fun to reach your goal and cease improving? To no longer have limitations to conquer or overcome?

Or is it more likely you would pivot and find a new skill or project to tackle?

Now that you reached your skill goals… you can finally produce the album that’s in your head (and that’ll require you to learn countless other skills). 

Now that you’ve produced the album, you can finally perform it for others. (And get better and better at doing that, since it’s a skill of its own). 

And then you might attract a fanbase (another goal comprised of many skills and consistent efforts and practice)… 

And then tour (yet another rabbit hole)… 

And then teach what you know to others (teaching is yet another skill).

See how the goals shift? 

The goals don’t stop. There is no final destination.

There will always be more to strive for, no matter how far you get, and no matter how fast you get there.

And so be it. 

That means we can skip the fuss and realize that our practice today is the entire point.

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Because we are merely working our way toward some arbitrary success metric anyway. And once attained, we will then work our way toward some other arbitrary success metric.

And this isn’t a discouraging thing.

This isn’t pessimistic or nihilistic.

The grim temptation might be to say, “Yeah, the walk on the wheel never ends, so why walk at all?”

But being deeply engaged in a meaningful pursuit is exciting! It’s a problem worth having.

It puts me in the right place at the right time, which is right now. 

I don’t want to wait to feel like I’m doing the right thing.

I want to do the right thing now, and enjoy what that feels like.

Besides, with what little time you have (and none of it is free, not really)… what’s the alternative to practice?

What are the things that are likely to hijack and occupy your attention and time if you aren’t practicing?

Social media?

A Netflix binge?

Drinking at the bar (once the social distancing blows over)?

Scrolling through and snacking on YouTube videos?

Blasting pixels on a screen?

I don’t know about you… but I’d much rather be practicing.

For its own sake.

To what end do we proceed with these other mindless activities?

Think about it:

Within seconds, we can be engaged in deep concentration. 

We can devote ourselves to our training. And the timeless act of trying to “make the most beautiful thing that has ever come out of mankind.” Music itself.

My wife once shared with me a lovely interview with Alice Herz-Sommer. 

Alice, the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor, was a Jewish pianist and supercentenarian. She lived through two world wars and survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

She said, 

“The life of a musician is a privilege. This, I am sure. Because you are, from the morning to the evening, full of the most beautiful thing coming out of mankind.”

And that’s what you are up to when you practice.

You may, like one student put it, feel that you’re “not a musician, but merely a guitar player.”

But I beg to differ.

If you aren’t a musician, you’re a musician in the making.

And it is practice that will get you there.

If that doesn’t illustrate the inherent importance and value of practice; I don’t know what does.

Proper practice requires all your mental energy and attention.

It causes you to constantly confront and solve problems.

It requires ingenuity and creativity and discipline and persistence.

It requires focus––a shrinking trait in today’s world––and determination.

It requires patience and presence and endurance.

It requires strength and resilience and grit. 

It requires the willingness to suffer through pain and frustration and setbacks but carry on anyway.

Practice, as they say, builds character.

Practice brings out the best of us. It cultivates vital virtues.

Vital virtues that can serve us well in these uncertain times.

Remember this if you’re ever tempted to feel like practice isn’t worth your time.

Remember this if you ever feel like you aren’t progressing fast enough.

Remember this if you feel like the whole world is crashing around you and its entirely out of your control.

It’s not about how fast you get there. It’s about the joy you derive from the experience itself (whether or not you get there at all).

Practice is the point. The outcome of your practice is just a bonus.

Now I’ll leave you to it.

Cheers,

Joshua

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