Over the past several years, I’ve noticed strikingly similar patterns among high performance achievers.
Their success stories present a stark contrast to the numerous guys all over the world who keep going out every night trying to practice “sarging” and only meet with continual disappointment and discouragement and then give up. I hope that this article can point out a few things these guys haven’t done yet, which can help lift them out of their valley of defeat.
In very diverse parts of my life, I’ve also noticed certain commonalities on my way to the successes that I’ve had. If you reflect on your own successes, I’m sure you will notice the same patterns.
I’ve been fortunate in my 33 years on this earth to have had the opportunity, luxury, and resources to pursue various goals and excel at them. I still have many other goals that I am still working towards, and I am looking forward to tackling them one by one.
These top 10 tips for success can be applied across a great diversity of activities, goals, and fields. In my own experience, these same principles were responsible for my excellence in areas as various as academic achievement, music performance, martial arts, fitness and athletics, lifestyle design, and the social arts. So here they are, in no particular order. I originally wrote this to a musician friend.
1. Fundamentals First
This is all about the 80-20 rule (aka., The Pareto Principle).
My saxophone teacher called the fundamentals to sax playing The Three T’s (tone, tonguing, technique). For about 5 years, I spent the first 15-20 minutes of practice time just going over the Three T’s.
In the attraction arts, it’s attitude (inner states), body language, tonality, and eye contact. These alone account for over 90% of getting attraction.
It’s easy to find the fundamentals in every skillful activity. Focus on and master the fundamentals first and foremost.
2. Aim to reach the Critical Mass Point.
I used to think the key was to practice daily, that it was better to work in brief daily sessions than in longer sessions spaced out over time. But I no longer believe that.
Instead, it’s best to wait until you have enough time and energy to devote to building momentum (caveat: though of course it’s better to do even just a little bit every day than wait a month or more before you can set aside a lot of time). The point is to reach the Critical Mass Point, which is the point at which you attain Flow (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense of the term; see his classic book, Flow). It’s like a tipping point or critical mass.
Each kind of activity will have a different Critical Mass Point. For instance, it’s pointless to work out just 10 minutes a day if you’re trying to lose fat (although this is still much better than nothing) because by the time you’ve warmed up, you have to stop, and you haven’t been able to burn any calories.
You can also look at this as the Warm Up. This is obvious in sports and music, but studies have also shown that the brain needs to be warmed up too, for about the same amount of time (10 minutes or so). Warm up for writing can be simply typing out the last page that you already wrote. Or better yet, finish your previous session early without completely finishing off the point, so that in your next session, you can pick up where you left off and just finish the point (i.e., just making the conclusion) before having to embark on developing a whole new point. One important part of this is that in the first 10-15 minutes, expect to go slower and gradually work yourself up to a good pace. Don’t just rush right in.
The same goes for the social arts. Set aside some time at the beginning to get yourself in a social mood. Before you head out the door, review your notes, remind yourself of the sticking points you want to work on, watch some exemplars on DVDs, listen to some tunes to get you in the right state. Then when once you’re out the door, make solid eye contact with friendly looking people and start mini-conversations wherever you go.
Chat with the taxi driver, the bellman, the clerk at the 7-11, the people waiting in line with you, the bouncer, and the bartender. Ask innocuous questions of strangers on the street for the time or directions. And then do 2-3 warm up interactions just to get your socializing muscles warmed up. Expect to set aside this preparation time to get yourself in the rhythm and build momentum.
3. Get a Private Teacher/Trainer/Coach/Mentor, even if no one else has one.
This made a big difference for me in junior high and high school in music. Even though I went to a high school for the performing arts, surprisingly few of the music students had private, one-on-one teachers. It was mainly because it was relatively expensive and not every family could afford it. I can easily attribute a great deal of my success in music performance to the fact that I had private instruction from the ages of 5-14 in piano and of 12-17 in saxophone.
Even group classes or 2-on-1 won’t cut it. You can learn a lot on your own, just from accessing the internet, DVDs, books, and your peers. But unless you were already naturally gifted to begin with, you will very likely reach a ceiling that no one else you know can get you through. Your teachers and coaches in your team, band, club, or class cannot help you. And this is because at the higher levels, we all have unique sticking points. Probably only less than 1% of people would have that problem. And unless you get individualized, customized, one-on-one feedback from an experienced expert and specialist, you will have an impossible time finding the solution.
For example, I had risen to become one of the best saxophonists in my grade level after just a year and a half of playing on my own and learning from books and from my music class teacher, who was an award-winning and gifted teacher. But then for some strange reason, about 3 out of 10 times, my high D note would just pop up an octave or more, and it would sound like a horrible squeak.
I had to play a solo in one of our performances that called for a very loud high D, but I couldn’t nail it because of this bizarre squeaking. I asked everybody I knew and even sought out a private sax teacher at a small music school in the neighborhood, but no one could figure out the problem. This went on for months. It wasn’t until my parents took me to the top music conservatory in the country and to their top saxophone teacher that in literally ten seconds he solved the problem FOREVER.
He had me play the note twice, and he immediately diagnosed the problem. It was a mechanical problem that plagued maybe only about 1% of saxophones, and it was easy to fix; you just needed to have an expert eye to diagnose the problem. You better bet I begged my parents to let me take weekly lessons with that guy, even though his rates were the highest in the city. His coaching was instrumental in making me into the best saxophonist of my grade from day one in the performing arts high school, and the best in the entire school by the second year, and arguably one of the top in the country in my age range by the time I graduated from high school.
And it explains a lot of my problems in team sports in junior high and high school. My needs were so unique in soccer and basketball, etc., because of my martial arts background. I did kung-fu since the age of 5 and Tae Kwon-do from the age of 11. I often excelled in activities that others did not, whereas I sucked at certain skills that others took for granted. For example, I made it to the final cut on the junior high soccer team as the goalie, but I kept trying to kick the ball like I was doing Tae Kwondo, haha.
And no one ever taught me how to kick a soccer ball properly. I just showed up for try-outs and got through to the final cut purely on my athleticism. Only later, when I was benched basically permanently did I realize that I needed to contact the ball at its lowest point (in other words, drop kick it). This was so simple, and everybody else took this for granted or didn’t every think about it, but I just needed someone to tell me.
In the social arts, it took me about a year and a half of stumbling around trying lots of different styles and getting tons of conflicting advice and information until finally a really gifted coach pointed out how I could best utilize my current personality strengths (cultured, traveled scholar) to craft an attraction style and then work from there. I eventually came to adopt his pedagogical method of customizing the client’s attraction style to his natural strengths.
And I shouldn’t even have to mention the mountain of materials on the importance of mentorships in business and leadership.
Getting personalized, individualized feedback from an expert mentor, coach, or teacher is crucial to mastering any skillful activity.
4. Read/Listen/Watch widely and often to examples of the kind of thing you want to do.
Inundate your mind. Train yourself to see the possibilities and reality differently.
This was especially crucial in music. Whenever I talked to a lot of the top jazz musicians in Toronto, one of their first questions to me was, What are you listening to nowadays? This was even before they knew anything else about me. It was crucial to be listening all the time to good examples of the sort of music you wanted to play. Those who listened the most, improved the most.
In social arts, this means watching exemplars in movies, TV, DVDs, etc. See my earlier post on Movies. Also important is reading about the lives and inner worlds of your exemplars. In literature, Robert Greene’s Art of Seduction is a good place to start, as he quotes a lot of the relevant literary works.
5. Small Chunking.
Focus on improving one or two things at a time.
Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much at one time. Like in music, isolate the few bars that are giving you trouble. Practice those over and over and over until you can nail them perfectly five times in a row. Then move on to the next few bars. Eventually, you can piece everything together and then work on the piece as a whole.
This is the same with everything in life. Divide the task into manageable chunks, and tackle them one by one.
In the social arts, even if your list of sticking points is twenty points long, prioritize them, and then work on them systematically in manageable units. Otherwise, you will become overwhelmed and not master anything.
Also, like Will Smith has said, I have no idea how people can do more than one thing at a time. That’s from Will Smith, of all people! This means that if you’re spreading your energies too thinly, you won’t end up mastering or even completing any of them. The most effective route is to focus 90%+ of your energies on just one major goal at a time.
I often have at most three projects running at one time. I have one project that is coming to an end, and I just need to see it through its final stages. I have a second project that I am right in the middle of that is my main focus. And I have a third project that is at a conceptual stage, which I have in the back of my mind as my next main focus. That’s about all my brain can handle at one time and still do a high quality job.
6. Surround Yourself with the Best, even if that means your competition.
Surround yourself with the best. Always seek out advice from those ahead of you. Network fearlessly.
This is the importance of a Mastermind group, which also links up to the tip on getting mentors.
Plenty of academic research in psychology and neuroscience has shown that most human beings are basically programmed by all the stimuli around them, especially what we see, hear, and experience others doing. We literally become like the people we surround ourselves with.
Want to know much a person makes a year? Find their five closest friends and average their incomes. That’s the answer.
Want to know how healthy and fit someone is? Find their five closest friends and average their fitness levels.
Want to know what a person’s aspirations are? Find their five closest friends and You get the idea. Of course, this isn’t always literally true. Sometimes you need to average their ten or fifteen closest friends, ha.
Sometimes, you find (or are) an outlier. But notice that if you are way beyond your friends in any major area, you are probably going to feel very lonely and on your own in that regard. Outliers often become social loners unless they can find a peer group that challenges them. Much more often the case, though, is that the potential outlier gets dragged down to the average of the group.
Seek out and then surround yourself with the best.
7. Make it a Habit.
Schedule it in. Be consistent. Often just showing up is good enough to get the ball rolling.
With habits, it’s always hardest at the beginning, when you’re still establishing the habit. Once you’ve made the practice a habit, the positive momentum generally carries you along to completion.
8. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
Drill and rehearse at home and in your mind. Even visualizing practice over and over is far better than nothing and, in cases of vivid visualization, can be as effective as real-life practice.
Practice in an environment or context as similar as possible to the one in which you expect to perform. This means that if you will be writing your exam on a fold out desk-chair in room 815, study for your exam on a fold out desk-chair in room 815. Simulate the conditions as closely as possible.
This also touches on Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.
9. Get Wide Exposure to Diverse Reference Experiences.
In the social arts, get experience socializing with different types of people. It’s natural for us to get along with those very similar to us, but try winning over people from diverse walks of life with backgrounds very different from yours. Try different venues and contexts.
Travel widely and get broader viewpoints on people and life. These fresh perspectives are often what trigger originality.
10. Focus on the process as much as the goal.
Lose yourself in the moment, in the activity. This is related to achieving Flow. When practicing a passage of music, don’t think about how the whole ten-minute piece will sound, just focus on getting the passage right. When approaching the basket, don’t think about winning the game, just focus on your shot and that particular play. When writing, just focus on the process (what you’re writing right then) without thinking about what the whole thirty-page paper will read like. When socializing, quit wondering whether people like you or not, and instead focus on enjoying yourself and making other people have fun.
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