How to Become the Best at What You Do (In Music, Sound, Writing, or Anything Else)

We now live in a global economy. This means that no matter what path you take in life, if you want anything that resembles a sustainable and fulfilling career, chances are that you’re going to have to become among the best in the world at what you do.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when all you had to be was to be among the best in your country, your region, or maybe even your town. But the powers of globalization and the worldwide web have made it so that the barriers that allowed for comfortable mediocrity have all but fallen in so many fields.

There are a few strategies you could take to deal with this. One is to lobby to have new barriers put up to replace the old ones. Canada is trying something like this right now, with a new, 200% higher fee on touring musicians who visit from other countries. Today, a band of 5 from anywhere else in the world would start $2250 in the hole when in embarking on a Canadian tour.

A second strategy would be to invoke strong feelings of regionalism in your customers or fans. Of course, logic dictates you might still have to become among the best in the world at invoking powerful feelings for your region in order for this to work.

Third, you could always move into a field where someone from another region could never outperform you. (You’re not likely to get too much competition from a garbageman or restaurant chef based in India; The commute alone would be a killer.) But if you think that a white collar or even a teaching job is safe due to this effect, it might be time to think again.

But there’s yet another strategy, and in a way it’s the “easiest” one. I say it’s “easy” because it’s the one over which you have the most direct control: You could simply become among the best in the world at what you do.

Granted, you don’t have absolute control over anything in the world. But chances are that you have far more control over your ability than you thought you did. Surprisingly enough, there’s also a very clear path to becoming the best in your chosen field, whether that field be music, sound, writing, or anything else you might pursue.

What’s “Talent” Got To Do With It? Surprisingly Little.

Over the past few decades, there’s been a tremendous amount of new research in the field of figuring what makes great performers so great.

Dr. K Anders Ericsson began releasing some of the most groundbreaking research in this area back in the early 1990s, and since then, further studies have repeatedly confirmed his basic findings. Now, after nearly three decades of study, It appears that there are 3 things that lead to great performance in any given field:

1) How much you practice, 2) How you practice, and 3) Whether the conditions around you are conducive to you practicing. And that’s just about it.

Sure, some of us may have aptitudes or physical constraints that make us a better fit for one field or another. Unless you’re well over 6 feet, you may be at a disadvantage as a linebacker or an NBA star. (Although there are exceptions. See Muggsy Bogues, for instance.) Similarly, if you’re anywhere near 6 feet, you’re probably at a huge disadvantage as a gymnast or a dancer.

But most fields aren’t like gymnastics of basketball. And, in all the research that’s been done, there is practically no evidence that “talent”, as we commonly understand it, even exists. That is to say: no one has discovered a gene that leads to people becoming master oboists, typists, mathematicians, salespeople, songwriters or chess champions instead of something else.

What is consistent across decades of research is that human beings are, in a word, adaptable.

You may need a basic level of intelligence to work with language or numbers. You might need a basic level of coordination to become a good musician or athlete, or a basic level of healthy hearing to become a good audio engineer – but that seems to be about as far as it goes.

Sometimes, the prerequisites aren’t even what you think they are. In some cases, even grandmasters of chess have lower than average general intelligence.

What the research does show is that all the best performers spent about 10,000 hours and at least 10 years perfecting their craft.

But just as important was the way in which these high achievers practiced. It may be very different from what you think of when you hear the word “practicing.”

Finally, each of these great “talents” benefited from an environment and a support system that helped them focus their energies on perfecting their craft.

Just How Much Does “Talent” Contribute, If Anything?

All of this may be surprising to hear. It seems counter-intuitive to many people at first, myself included. But the research to date points overwhelming in one direction.

Evidence that “talent” plays any significant part in expert achievement is so scant in fact, that when over-excited researchers find a tiny suggestion that talent may even play a role at all, they act like they’ve found the holy grail.

Consider a story that made it into the New York Times in 2011, titled “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters.”

The authors, in a strained effort to make an evidence-based argument for the importance of talent, describe a study in which they rated the performance of a group of piano players, sight-reading from a score.

They then tested these players for their general “working memory” – Their ability to hold random strings of digits or consonants in their minds.

(Never mind for the moment that the researchers merely assume that working memory is innate rather than developed. Let’s take their argument at face value for the time being.)

The two researchers found that the “high-memory” group performed 7% better than the low-memory group, even when they accounted for the amount of time the two groups spent practicing. That is a significant finding. However, what the reasearchers conveniently left out of their New York Times story was the fact that the “high-practicing” group outperformed the low-practicing group by about 100%. Significant indeed.

Even if “working memory” were completely innate – and we know that it’s not, because repeated testing shows that it can easily be improved – then this study would still fail to make the case that “talent”, whatever it may be, is a decisive factor in achievement.

This is not to say that talent doesn’t exist at all. Just that it’s unsupported by research. In the end, you can’t prove a negative. But when a half-baked study like this one is among the best we’ve got to suggest that talent is, you know, “an actual thing that exists,” it seems pretty clear where the burden of proof lies.

Talent-Is-OverratedWhat About Mozart?

Geoff Colvin, the author of Talent is Overrated, provides a great survey of research in this field for a popular audience. He notes that at this point, people tend give what seems to them, a perfectly simple and bulletproof rebuttal:

“Okay then. Explain Mozart.”

Fortunately for Colvin, the true story of Mozart (much like that of Tiger Woods) merely reinforces these principles. Mozart’s extreme achievement at an extremely young age, simply took extreme levels of deliberate practice, as well as an extremely conducive environment. Geoff Colvin writes:

“Mozart’s father was…Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer in his own right. He was also a domineering parent who started his son on a program of intensive training in composition and performing at age three… While Leopold was only so-so as a musician, he was highly accomplished as a pedagogue. His authoritative book on violin instruction, published the same year Wolfgang was born, remained influential for decades.

[S]o from the earliest age, Wolfgang was receiving heavy instruction from an expert teacher who lived with him. Of course his early compositions still seem remarkable, but they raise some provocative questions. It’s interesting to note that the manuscripts are not in the boy’s own hand; Leopold always “corrected” them before anyone saw them. It seems noteworthy also that Leopold stopped composing just at the time he began teaching Wolfgang.

In some cases it’s clear that the young boy’s compositions are not original. Wolfgang’s first four piano concertos, composed when he was was eleven, actually contain no original music by him. He put them together out of works by other composers. His next three works…at age sixteen…also contain no original music but instead are arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach…

None of these works is regarded today as great music or even close. They are rarely performed or recorded except as novelties, of interest only because of Mozart’s later fame. They seem instead to be the works of someone being trained as a composer by the usual methods – copying, arranging, and imitating the works of others – with the resulting products brought to the world’s attention (and just maybe polished a bit) by a father who spent most of his life promoting his son.

Mozart’s first work regarded today as a masterpiece, with its status confirmed by the number of recordings available, is his Piano Concerto No. 9, composed when he was twenty-one. That’s certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then, Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training.

Mozart would die at age thirty-five, cementing his reputation as young prodigy. And he might have been forgotten by history, had Mendelssohn not advocated for his work a half-century later.

Even the story of Mendelssohn, a child prodigy himself, arguably more advanced than Mozart, hammers home the notion that genius is developed much more than it is ingrained.

J.W. von Goethe, had witnessed both of these masters at a young age, and reportedly said that “what [Mendelssohn has already accomplished], bears the same relation to Mozart…that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”

Mendelssohn, just like Mozart, owed his great achievement to working hard, and just as importantly, to working effectively.

How Much Practice Do You Need?

The path to competence, true expertise – let alone mastery – is a long and arduous one. Our own Blake Madden described this in the June issue of Scientist.

He reports that the most commonly cited figure necessary for joining the ranks of the best in the world is about 10,000 hours of active practice. This amounts to 10 hours a week for 20 years, or 20 hours a week for 10 years. In study after study, this length of time continues to appear.

If you think you can catch up by practicing 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, forget about it. Research shows that past 4 hours a day, additional practice (at least on an instrument) becomes pretty ineffective. Even much past 2 or 2.5 hours a day, students will often begin to see diminishing returns from further practice.

If your goal is to become a world-renowned instrumentalist, author or grandmaster of chess, chances are you can’t slack off too much from these figures. But you can work smarter. There’s evidence to suggest that musicians who practice slightly less than their peers can do just as well, so long as they use that time more effectively.

Violinist Leopold Auer once said “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1.5 hours.

He may exaggerate slightly, but there’s some truth to these remarks. In a little bit, we’ll talk about some cases in which you might become renowned in your field before 10,000 hours. But first, we should be certain of what kind of practice is the most likely to lead to you succeeding at your goals.

What Deliberate Practice Looks Like

There’s a conventional view of what practicing should look like. Let’s look at it first, in the context of playing an instrument.

When you think of what a “practice” session is supposed to be, chances are that you imagine warming up on some scales, mindlessly playing through some finger exercises, and then beginning to work on a piece of music you want to improve.

Maybe you’d start playing a new piece from the beginning, as fast as you’re comfortable doing, until you come to a part where you make a mistake. Then, you might tread back over that mistake a few times until it starts to feels right. Then, you’d move on until you get to the next mistake and back over that one a bit until it smooths out.

This style of practice is common, it’s intuitive, and it’s almost exactly wrong. It has very little to do with the kind of deliberate practice that top performers engage in.

Based on the research, here are five hallmarks of what good practice looks like, on any instrument, or in any field.

#1 Focus On What Needs Improving

One of the key differences is that great performers don’t spend much time practicing things that they can already do.

When learning an instrument, too many people “practice” by playing the things they’re already good at. Great performers on the other hand, spend their time working on only the things that need work.

Ineffective performers will often practice whole pieces at full speed, hoping they’ll improve the weak sections by mere repetition, or perhaps, osmosis. Unfortunately, this kind of practice can even reinforce mistakes, rather than ironing them out. There’s even a saying among teachers in the know: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; Practice makes permanent.”


But you can’t just jump into the hardest section of a piece and just start flailing around. Instead, you need to:

#2 Break The Work Down Into Manageable Sections, Keeping The Goal Within Reach

Although great performers tend to put in the most hours, they don’t measure their practice sessions in mere time. They measure it in accomplishments.

For instance, if you wanted to master a new and challenging song on the piano, a bad idea would be to jump right into the hardest part and go at it at full tempo and with both hands, hoping that enough repetitions would make it gel.

Instead, you’d want to break the piece down by focusing on just the right hand, then just the left hand, and then both hands together, but at a very slow tempo. Only once you’ve mastered all three of these stages (and I mean really mastered them) is it time to move on.

Before playing any faster, you should start to feel so bored by how easily you can do it. Then, make your task more interesting by clicking up the tempo just a notch, always keeping just one step ahead of boredom, so that you are always just barely reaching, straining, and striving to get over the next hurdle.

When learning an instrument, one of the most common problems is that students will rush too far ahead after a few hasty and half-realized successes, thinking “I’ve got this. It’s different. I’m talented.” Inevitably, these students end up hitting a wall that they can’t surmount with this ultimately futile method. Then, faced with a level of difficulty for which they are completely unprepared for, they become endlessly frustrated and simply give up.

That type of futile approach is responsible for more half-learned pieces and stalled careers – in any field – than almost anything else. This is important to recognize, because when it comes to deliberate practice:

#3 You Can’t Do It When You’re Frustrated

These basic premises apply to almost any skill, whether you’re practicing music, learning how to mix, writing an article, or running a business. But for the moment, let’s continue on with this analogy of music lessons, because it’s something most of us here can relate to.

In the study of piano, there’s a practice technique called the “gravity drop.” In the gravity drop, you hold your hand several inches above the keys. Then, without using any pressure or resistance at all, you let your hand fall onto the keys through the mere force of gravity alone.

This is a bit harder than it sounds. To get there requires learning how to completely relax the arm, all at once, and on command, while still accurately hitting the desired note or chord. When your hand finally falls effortlessly to the keyboard, you may be surprised by just how much volume and tone comes through.

Drummers can try a similar thing with their sticks, guitar players with their strumming, and so can bass players, by letting their hand fall loose after plucking a string. No matter what you play or what you do, there’s some way to adapt this method.

The gravity drop helps teach both muscle control and efficiency of movement. But perhaps far more importantly, it gets the body and mind into exactly the kind of state that’s necessary for true deliberate practice to begin.

Upon completing this exercise, you’ll find yourself relaxed yet focused, clear-headed but engaged. Without this kind of starting point, truly deliberate practice becomes nearly impossible, and frustration tends to build quickly.

But don’t expect to stay in this state forever. Because the truth about deliberate practice is that:

#4 You Can Only Do It For A While At A Time

Some studies even suggest that the best players are the ones who are the most relaxed in general. They report spending more time on leisure activities, and about one more hour per night sleeping than average and mediocre performers.

Although it’s clear that the best performers inevitably put in the most hours, it’s also important to recognize that working toward better performance is nothing like cramming for an exam or rushing to meet a deadline.

In at least one study, the performers who benefited most from deliberate practice not only put in more hours, but they did it with more consistency; usually in one or two large-but-manageable chunks each day.

These chunks (usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon) rarely surpassed 1 or 1.5 hours each. After that, diminishing returns began to kick in.

Rarely did any great of the performers actively practice more than 4 hours in a day. True deliberate practice is too draining to be done in those quantities. After a certain point, you’re not really improving; you’re just spinning your wheels. And if you over-practice, chances of you missing the next, more effective day of practice, go up dramatically.

If you are starting from zero, or from a haphazard practicing schedule, you might not even be capable of hour-long blocks to start. That’s okay. Start with 30 minutes. Start with 5. But start.

If you’re writing songs or jokes or blog posts, give yourself deadlines. Just make sure they’re deadlines you can do – every single time.

You might even try “the Seinfeld strategy,” named after comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Every day that you do the job you’ve set out for yourself, mark a big red X on your calendar or note it in a journal. Soon you’ll have a chain of big red X’s. From there, the goal is to simply “never break the chain.”

But to get the most out of your practice, you need something else:

#5 You Need Immediate Feedback

Feedback can come in the form of a teacher, or it can come in the form of recording. But you need it, and you need it often in order to improve.

Most people freeze up or become uncomfortable when they first try recording themselves, whatever the task may be. That’s normal. And it’s a necessary step.

Instead of hating the camera or audio recorder for making you “choke up”, embrace it for letting you know how you really sound under pressure. Without first confronting reality, there is no hope of moving forward.

In order to gain perspective, performers need to see themselves perform, mixers need to print their mixes and listen to them away from the desk, and writers need to mark a draft “done” and come back to it later.

It’s also important to get constructive criticism from people you trust and respect. Just make sure they- and you- know what “constructive” means.

When people tell you about a place in your work where they get bored, believe them. Then, consider whether or not they’re your target audience.

The Last Factor Is Your Environment

When it comes to human potential, we have barely begun to tap what’s available. I don’t just mean this in the self-helpy “You can do it!” sense of the word. I mean it on a larger scale.

The thing that holds back so many potentially great performers is not a lack of inborn aptitude or talent, but a lack of opportunity. Great performers so rarely emerge from war-torn countries, violent neighborhoods or crushing poverty. When they do, it’s all the more special, and they’ve probably had some kind of unlikely stabilizing force in their lives to help them accomplish what they have.

You might not be able to fix all of the world’s problems, but you can be aware that not everyone has the same advantages as you.

If you have a job or a life that doesn’t squeeze out every last ounce of your brainpower each day, you have all the tools required to become great at what you do. I know that you do. How?

Well, here you are, almost 3,000 words in to an article, in English, on the internet, that’s about music, audio, and professional development in creative fields. Chances are, that regardless of what “class” you might consider yourself part of, you have tremendous advantages compared the rest of the world, and compared to almost every other person who’s ever lived.

So don’t squander your enviable opportunity to become motherf*ng great at what you do. To do that would be an insult to each and every one of the billions of people in the world who will never have the chances that you do, right now.

You may need to restructure your own life in a way that is conducive to you to dedicating time to improving at what you do. And for this to happen, you will probably need the help and support of people who care about you – whether it be family or friends, a significant other or a community group.

You will probably need some source of income that does not completely drain your mental power. But again, since you’ve just read about 3800 words here, chances are you qualify.

When You Can Get Away With Less Practice

When we talk about the 10,000 hour rule, it’s usually in the context of music or some other skill where virtuosity is a prerequisite for success.

However, in many fields, even a little bit of deliberate practice is far more than your competition will ever get. In these cases, if you do any deliberate practice at all, you’re likely to be at a serious advantage.

For musicians, this can be one of the benefits of picking a specific niche, an uncommon instrument, or a style of music in which virtuosity is not the primary goal.

Did Kurt Cobain get a full 10,000 hours of practice writing songs before penning Nevermind? Did Run DMC log 10,000 hours on the mic before King of Rock or King of Rock? Did Jackie Wilson spend 10,000 hours singing before reaching #1 on the R&B charts with “Lonely Teardrops”?

Perhaps we’ll never know for certain, but I’d doubt it. Still, at least one thing is clear: each of these artists was among the most painstakingly rehearsed and well prepared of anyone working in their respective genres at the time.

Even if we were to take artists for whom conventional “skill” would seem more of a liability than a perk (say, Pavement, The Velvet Underground, The Sex Pistols or arguably, Bob Dylan) can you think of anyone who – at the time – was doing precisely what they did, as well, or as prolifically?

Fortunately, being the best doesn’t mean being the best at everything. Nor does it mean being “the best” in your field in a general sense. It means being the best in your little corner of the world.

You could be the best satirical metal band or the first great popularizer of cosmology for a mainstream audience. Being the best means being the best of your domain. The good news is that you get to define exactly what that is.

Also ask yourself whether you would benefit more from striving to be the very greatest performer at one specific task, or from developing very strong performance across a few complementary skills.

There’s one more consideration to make: In your life, how much accomplishment is enough? Do you want to be the best of the best, or do you want to do other things with your life? Whatever you decide, you’ll have to accept the tradeoffs.

The answers to the questions of “why to practice” and “how to practice” are fairly clear. We can even offer some basic suggestions as to “whatyou might practice. The rest however, are questions only you can answer for yourself.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Rants and Raves, September 2013, Techniques. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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