Recently, I have gotten into rock climbing. Well, actually, I have only done it a handful of times on man-made walls at the Brooklyn Boulder, an indoor gym.
It is cool and trendy. I like the idea of it as an exercise in mental toughness — except that it’s really hard. You are perched at awkward angles and at risk of falling if you miss the next hold. Do not forget that your fingers go numb from their death grip on a teeny tiny rock. If you can manage that, then you have gotten really good at it.
Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, makes the distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset think their basic traits, like intelligence or talent, are fixed; that innate talent alone creates success. However, people with a growth mindset believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.
“I totally have a growth mindset,” I thought when I learned about this research, patting myself on the back. “I love practicing and I see failure as just another opportunity to learn.”
Except often I don’t. I have noticed recently that I feel discouraged when I take on a new activity not immediately killing it.
“What’s going on,” I think, wondering, in essence: “Why am I not an expert at this activity that I have put a minimum of effort into?” “Why can’t I speak French fluently?” I thought, after being in Paris for two weeks and speaking mostly English. “Why can’t I do a handstand push-up?” the first time I tried it…
So, where does this skewed expectation come from? Partially, it is “comparing their highlight reel to our behind-the-scenes” phenomenon. Thanks to social media, we can see a stream of people showcasing increasingly incredible feats, seemingly accomplished on the first try, with no evidence of the hours of practice that went into it.
I also think we like to maintain the illusion that it comes easily for others and they didn’t have to work that hard to get there. That way, we can say, “Well, clearly I’m not a natural, so there’s no point in trying,” and avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of not being good at something.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Even the most naturally talented people have to go through a period of not being good in order to reach the next level of growth. Every one of the Navy SEAL officer candidates that I mentor inevitably has an area of weakness — whether it’s lack of upper body strength, a slow run or unconvincing command presence — that they have to consistently work on and improve if they want to be considered for selection.
On an episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, he speaks with Gabby Reece and her husband, surfer Laird Hamilton, who is often considered one of the greatest athletes in the world. Gabby says Laird worked incessantly for three years to develop tow-in surfing. Others tried, but they “didn’t have the patience or commitment.”
Or how about Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players of all time? He has won five NBA championships and two Olympic Gold Medals, and earned a net worth of $200+ million during his career.
One of the TEAM USA trainers tells how he got a call from Kobe one morning at 4:15am. He asked him if he could help with some conditioning work. He went down to the court and they trained together for two hours before the trainer stumbled back to bed.
When he got back to the court at 11 in the morning, he saw Kobe on the court practicing jump shots and asked him, “So when did you finish?” “Finish what,” said Kobe. “Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?” “Oh, just now,” answered Kobe. “I wanted 800 makes. So yeah, just now.”
Kobe Bryant started his conditioning work around 4:30 am, and didn’t stop until he had made 800 jump shots.
No matter how talented you are, growth towards mastery takes consistent effort. It starts with the willingness to suck.
This article was originally published at Step Up Your Game Now.