When I was a little boy, I came home from school one day to discover a baby grand piano sitting in our living room. My parents decided it would add to the decor. Also, my mother was interested in learning how to play.
There was an elderly Latvian woman named Irma Hincenbergs who lived in our home town. She taught classical piano. I don’t know how my mother found her back then since this was before the Internet. Maybe an advertisement in the newspaper or the Yellow Pages?
Mom began piano lessons with Mrs. Hincenbergs. I remember listening in bed at night, as Mom softly practiced her scales and simple, beginner exercises.
Before long, I developed an interest in the piano. I started tickling the ivories and invented some of my own songs. My parents noticed this behavior and signed me up for lessons with Mrs. Hincenbergs.
Every Friday, Mom drove me downtown to Mrs. Hincenbergs’ old, craftsmen home, where I’d spend the next hour laboring over Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune.”
Weekdays after school, I was expected to practice my scales and various arrangements assigned by Mrs. Hincenbergs. Often, I resented these practice sessions, as they kept me away from important stuff like the latest Star Trek episode or Daredevil comic book. Yet, I persevered.
With adolescence, I discovered the charms of rock music and began playing the songs of Styx, Journey, and other bands. Much to my parent’s chagrin, little Johnny learned to sing and was soon pounding the keyboard and caterwauling to his favorite rock hits. Sometimes my poor father would retreat to the upstairs bedroom.
By high school, I was in a rock band singing and playing keyboards. In college, I joined another rock band and enjoyed playing local gigs.
When I first began, I didn’t play the piano very well. Sometimes it was frustrating learning to play more and more complex songs. But I was patient and kept practicing. Over time, I improved.
Those years of practice and sacrificed Friday afternoons paid off. I inherited my parent’s baby grand and often played and sang at house parties. To this day, I enjoy singing and playing the piano. Click here for a home recording of me playing and singing “Everything I Own” by Bread.
It’s in the air somewhere
We live in a day and age of instant gratification. Everything we seemingly want or need is a click away on our smartphones.
There’s a phone app to solve all your needs, be it banking, shopping, travel or social connections. You no longer have to wait very much.
Things have changed a great deal from the pre-internet age that I grew up in. Waiting was a much bigger part of life back then. There was no Uber. You waited at the bus stop. Sometimes for a long time.
Food delivery was mostly relegated to pizza, unlike today’s GrubHub and related services. New clothing and household items required a shopping mall or supermarket trip, as there was no Amazon.com.
College research meant going to the campus library to look up periodicals and journals, which we then photocopied. Sometimes the journals were checked out by other students, and you had to wait several days or even a week until you could see it.
There’s no question that I embrace today’s modern conveniences, but the downside to instant gratification is that we are less schooled in the art of patience. In fact, we’re so used to today’s technology that we freak out whenever service is interrupted. Poor wi-fi or a bad cell connection feels like a personal affront.
Just move to the Internet, it’s great here. We get to live inside where the weather is always awesome.-
Today’s technology creates another negative, which is an entitlement mentality. We feel like everything should come easy. We think there’s a “hack” for everything. A short cut to every skill set. Why learn to play the piano when you can play a YouTube video and follow along. Why practice chess against many different people when you can download a course and hack the best moves.
The Internet is a big distraction. It’s distracting, it’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.-
The reality is that, despite all of today’s technological advances and conveniences, you still need to embrace the following two success traits if you want to achieve more in life. What are these important traits?
Practice and patience
Wider and deeper lives
Just about everything truly worthwhile in my life was a product of practice and/or patience.
When I first started drawing as a boy, my work was rough and amateurish. While I was blessed with some talent, my artistic development was primarily due to years of practice.
All those sketchbooks filled with doodles, copies, drawings, and experimentation were investments in my creative growth. It was the accumulated years of practice that deepened my skillset and confidence as an artist. To this day, I continue a daily practice of doodling and sketching.
When I first met my wife, she had come out of a difficult relationship. She wasn’t interested in diving into a new relationship. I told her that it was okay, she was worth waiting for. A relationship with her would either blossom, or it wouldn’t. I decided to be patient.
If we want to live wider and deeper lives, not just faster ones, we have to practice patience — patience with ourselves, with other people, and with the big and small circumstances of life itself.
— M. J. Ryan
In my law enforcement career, promotions didn’t come around quickly. They required years of effort, acquiring new skills, education and a positive reputation that stood out. There were sacrifices and disappointments that demanded practice and patience from me. But there were rewards, too.
We don’t tend to learn the value of practice and patience from the Internet. Sometimes the best things in life don’t arrive instantly and effortlessly, on demand. Truly good and meaningful things often take time and effort. Not to mention patience and practice.
Work ethic eliminates fear
American former professional basketball player Michael Jordan is a legend in the game. His biography on the official NBA website states: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” Wikipedia lists endless “Most Valuable Player” awards and other major accomplishments for Jordan.
So how did he get there? What set Jordan apart from all the other professionals? Talent may have played a part, but so did practice.
Most of us have some fear of trying new things or developing new skills. After all, who wants to fail or be embarrassed? We all want to look cool and instantly be great at everything. Unfortunately, you can’t hack your way to greatness. Exceptional skills require patience and disciplined practice.
In the above video, Michael Jordan said something simple yet profound:
“Work ethic eliminates fear.”
You have to keep showing up and practicing the skills you need to improve and become great. Also, there’s a big difference between intellectual understanding and the acquisition of skills. You might be able to appreciate and understand the complexity of Michael Jordan’s basketball skills, but try and duplicate them yourself. You’ll quickly discover that such skills require immense practice.
Brains in your muscles
Practice is an activity that you repeat regularly to develop skills, but it must be an effective practice. In other words, it must achieve results.
Practice puts brains in your muscles.
— Sam Snead
The effective practice of skills gets imprinted on the brain, making your performance appear effortless to others.
According to KQED.org’s Mindshift podcast:
Researchers believe that practice helps build up the protective layer of myelin, the fatty substance that protects axons in the brain. Axons move electrical signals from the brain to our muscles and when they are better protected by thick myelin they move more efficiently, creating an ‘information superhighway’ between the brain and muscles.
The Mindshift podcast adds the following tips to get the most out of practice:
“1. Focus when engaged in practice
2. Minimize distractions
3. Start slow and increase speed later
4. Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
5. Visualize the skill to help reinforce practice”
Something other than amused detachment
What do you get when you pair a leading interpreter of existential philosophy with a professor of philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University? A new book titled: All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.
The book explores the search for meaning in our time and the threat of nihilism. It reminds us that we’re all searching for something more than silly cat videos on YouTube.
As one reviewer of the book wrote:
All Things Shining is an ambitious little book, a prolegomenon, really, to a much larger project: put simply, it argues that western civilization has spent its Lifemoral capital and is bankrupt. The ironist is our new patron saint, but all he can offer is mockery. Life requires engagement in something other than amused detachment, the authors suggest. Scoffing is our new pastime, and we are scoffing all the way to the grave.
In other words, we have lost our way and waste time on superficial stuff. We spend hours on social media and YouTube nonsense. All this “amused detachment” keeps us away from the patient and deliberate practice of skills and abilities that can significantly improve our lives.
Imagine if the time you spent distracted online was put towards physical exercise, or learning new skills? Picture where’d you be in a year if you crafted a schedule of patient, regular practice of something you want to excel at?
Meaning in our lives comes from doing things that matter to us, like spending time with loved ones and achieving purposeful work.
Some of the happiest people I’ve met are artists and craftsmen whose work fills them with purpose and joy. Their emotional lives don’t depend upon Facebook likes but rather the excellence and growth of their creative work. They have learned the power of patience and practice in plying their craft.
I wish my piano teacher, Irma Hincenbergs, was still alive. I’d give her a hug and apologize for those times when I was impatient or failed to practice. I’d tell her that I get it now. That most everything good in my life has come from patience and practice.
Patience and practice. Don’t neglect these two success traits. Your life can improve in ways you never imagined, if you learn to embrace them. You could become the next Michael Jordan, or the next Irma Hincenberg. Each found purpose and joy in their lives, and you can too.
Before you go
Previously published on “Personal Growth”, a Medium publication.
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Illustrations by John P. Weiss