You Have to Challenge the Tough Stuff

consistency john cunningham mistakes music persistence Oct 01, 2021

By John Cunningham

I am finding it difficult to pick up my guitars. They sit just across the room from me, and yet I avoid looking at them or listening as they call for me to play. It’s nothing they did wrong. In fact, my difficulty is that I know I suck.

We generally seem to gravitate towards doing those things we are good at and shy away from our areas of weakness. This is a big problem. When trying to develop a new skill or hobby, we are usually unsatisfied with the results that we are getting. Not only that, but we will continue to perform poorly at the new technique until we have enough experience to feel confident, or we decide to leave our egos behind and just make a go of it. Here are four things we can both do to make some progress.

Give yourself some time

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. To make tangible improvement takes effort and time. No time invested results in zero gain. It’s that simple. Start with scheduling time to work on your new skill. Develop a practice routine and stick to it. I find it easier to do this if I put it on the calendar as a recurring task. To get from where you are to where you want to be you’ll need to invest your time, lose your fear of failure, and learn to enjoy the process.

Lower your expectations

It’s not uncommon to give ourselves unrealistic timetables for seeing remarkable progress. Slow down, and give yourself the benefit of the doubt. For me, that means learning to play the super-easy tunes from memory. No fancy strumming patterns just simple down strums to the beat from beginning to end. Once I can do that, I can add some upstrokes to make it sound more interesting. What is the most basic level of achievement that lets you know you are on the right track?

Look for incremental improvement

I’m not going to go from complete beginner to improvisational virtuoso in a year, and neither are you. Whether you are growing your spreadsheet skills, learning a foreign language, or have picked up a new musical instrument. You will go further if you are observant of signs that you are getting better. Analyze your progress and identify what you are doing better this week compared to last. That will help you to remain motivated and continuing to try. 

Choose the tougher road

There will be slips too. You may have a comparable skill that you can substitute for the one you are learning. That makes it easy to revert to your previous habits. Unfortunately, you won’t improve that way. You need to challenge the new skill. Sometimes it means taking a step backward so that you can take two forwards.

In baseball, switch hitters are usually better from one side of the plate than the other. For example, the greatest switch hitter of all time, Mickey Mantle’s batting average was 50 points higher from the right side of the plate (.330 vs. .281 from the left). Just having the ability to do both sent fear through the opposing manager regardless of where The Mick stood (372 home runs lefty and 164 batting right). Would you rather pitch to a right-handed hitter that gets on base an awful lot or a left-handed power hitter? There is no correct answer to that question.

Currently, Shohei Ohtani probably spends more hours practicing his craft than any other player in the majors. Because he needs to be both a good starting pitcher and a hitter worthy of a place in the lineup on the days he is not on the mound. That’s a tall order.

The same is true for you. The only way to develop new skills and abilities is to work at them and put them on display.

Being good at new skills and abilities is fun. Going through the learning process is not. For me, it means not letting my guitars collect dust, and playing easier versions of the songs I like. It also requires that I add guitar time to my schedule and find joy in my improvements, no matter how small. I could write about music. I am pretty good at that. Though I think it would be more fun to play. I know the older, wiser version of myself will thank me for sticking with it.



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