How to Get Better at What You Do Best

Sebastian was flattered when Michael, his former protégé, asked him to critique the promotion he’d written. After all, Sebastian hadn’t written much copy in the 10 years that had passed since they worked together. And during that time, Michael had written a score of blockbusters. He was the man.

Nevertheless, Sebastian agreed to do it.

“It’s generally very good,” he wrote in his critique. “But I have one idea that you might want to consider…”

After sending it off, Sebastian worried. His suggestion would require Michael to spend hours reworking the lead. And he wasn’t sure that his idea was any better than what Michael had already written. He feared that Michael would be insulted.

Sebastian didn’t have to worry for very long. An hour later, Michael returned his email. “That was brilliant!” he wrote. “I don’t know how you do it! I’m going to get to it right away!”

Sebastian felt immense relief. Michael was in an entirely different mindset. He was focused on the work, on making it better. For him, it had nothing to do with feelings.

Facing Obstacles

The greatest challenges we face in life are obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to mastering a skill, the greatest challenge is not the work and time involved in acquiring it but the desire to be a master before you become one.

Hubris – Aristotle’s term for excessive, blinding pride – is the fatal flaw that foiled many tragic heroes in literature, from Oedipus to King Lear to Captain Ahab. And in developing any complex skill, such as copywriting, hubris manifests itself in the same way. The copywriter believes – or desperately wants to believe (which is sometimes worse) – that his/her writing is above reproach.

This is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, sumo wrestlers and skateboarders. Those who are willing to say “I can do better” do better. Those who say “I am the greatest” soon take a tumble.

What you want in life is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

So that’s the first lesson: No matter how good you are at what you do, never tell yourself that you can’t get better and never believe you can’t learn from others, even those who cannot perform at the level you have attained.

Think about your strongest skill – the talent or capability that is most important to the achievement of your main goal. Now ask, “Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better at this than I am?”

If you can accept the limitations of your strongest skill, there is no limit to how far you can develop it.

The Fire and the Funnel

Ego is the fire that fuels our ambitions. The ambition to master any skill is sparked by the heart’s imagination – seeing oneself at the top of the podium, lauded for one’s achievement, acknowledged for one’s value.

But when ambition becomes pride and pride becomes excessive, the skill seeker stops learning. He cannot learn because he believes he has nothing to learn. He refuses criticism. He defends his weakest efforts. He denies his failure – to others and to himself.

On fire with an exaggerated opinion of himself, he burns out.

Humility is the funnel that can prevent this. Humility sets boundaries on pride and keeps the ego fire under control.

When I started actively training in Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) at age 47, I wasn’t very good at it at all. I had always prided myself on being a good grappler and a scrappy fighter, but I found out very quickly that those old confidences could not sustain me. I got my a** handed to me by guys who were half my size.

I had a choice: Be humble or be proud.

Pride would have spurred me to announce that BJJ was a b.s. sport and quit, thus avoiding future humiliations on the mat. Humility would have let me accept the reality of my incompetence, thus allowing me to continue to practice and learn.

Happily, I chose to be humble. And since then, every time I’ve advanced through the belt rankings, from white to blue to purple to brown and to black, I’ve had to face the fact that there were many others – not just higher belts but also lower belts – who were more skillful than me. Even today, getting beaten by a purple belt or a brown belt challenges my pride. And each time, I have to choose to accept the fact that others are better… because if I don’t, I cannot continue to improve.

Human beings are designed to get better through practice. Everything we ever learn to do – from walking to talking to writing concertos – gets better through practice. Practice makes our fingers move faster, our hearts beat stronger, our brains think smarter. What is it that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods talk about when they talk about their careers? It’s not that they were gifted with extraordinary natural talent. It’s that they worked harder than their competitors.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. That’s a foolish idea. Practice makes better. And better is where all the enjoyment is in learning.

To become a better version of whatever you are good at now, you need the fuel of your ambition to drive you forward. But without the funnel of humility to restrain your pride, you will stop practicing. And when you stop practicing, you are out of the game.

Have you been working to master any skills during this year’s shutdown? Tell us about them at mailbag@manwardpress.com.

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