One of my first guitar teachers taught me a valuable lesson about practicing that I will never forget.
His name is KK, and he’s one of Iceland’s most celebrated singer/songwriters. Even if you’ve never heard his music, you might’ve seen him play Riley Blue’s Icelandic father in the Netflix show Sense 8.
I adore this man because he shaped the way I think about practice, perseverance and perfecting your craft.
Here’s the story:
It was the second week of class, and I was struggling to show him the results of last week’s practice. It was a simple Bluegrass fingerpicking tune called “Talandi Dæmi.”
However, that second week of class was a failure for the simple reason that I somehow thought that I could learn how to play without actually practicing.
I was a punk teenager and was more concerned with being known for playing guitar (and having a cool teacher) than actually taking the time to learn how to play. It’s easy to lift yourself up and brag about stuff like that when you don’t have to whip out your guitar and show off your skills.
It’s similar to being an artist that “works on their art” all the time but never releases anything.
So when KK asked me to show him what I had learned, he was quick to figure out that I hadn’t put in the time to learn the little lick that he assigned.
Then, in no uncertain terms, he flat out called me out on my lack of improvement:
“It doesn’t seem like you’ve been practicing.”
Of course, I had a hard time defending his accusation because the only way to prove him wrong would have been to play the homework assignment correctly.
Then he told me something I will never forget.
I’m paraphrasing because this was over 17 years ago, but he said something along the lines of, “There are other boys on a waiting list hoping to get classes with me that will take the time to practice. If you’re not interested in putting in the time, then there are plenty of other students waiting to take your place.”
That moment shaped the way I think about practice and perseverance ever since.
If you’re unwilling to practice and improve, you will be passed over in life. There are always other people behind you in line that are willing to put in the time. Things will rarely be given to you, but when they are, they usually come with a catch. But earning something because you took the time to practice and improve your craft over time, that’s something to be proud of.
To get better, at anything, you must practice. You will suck when you start, but it’s the continuous improvement you make every day through your practice that develops you as a creative in any field.
Nobody’s ever put this into words better than Ira Glass, so I won’t even try to:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” -Ira Glass
Practice in Public
As a creative person, I practice in public a lot. I perform live with bands. I put creative energy into producing and mixing music for other groups. But the most important thing I do is write.
I’ve been practicing writing in public for over a decade, and it’s still terrifying to let your thoughts escape into the real world. Keeping them bundled up in your brain is easier because you don’t have to worry about whether the writing is any good. If you don’t release your work, nobody can tell you that your work sucks.
And boy can it suck sometimes. Absolute garbage writing that nobody should ever see. I’m not even sure this post deserves to be written, or I should at the very least take out the passive voice at the beginning of this sentence…
But if I don’t practice in public, I can’t get the feedback that makes me improve.
These posts, my daily emails to my email subscribers at Audio Issues, my books and courses are all written in public. And by “public,” I mean that they are released into the world, ready to be torn down at a moment’s notice by an internet troll. Even worse, they might just get ignored completely.
Given the two, I’d rather take the troll. Then, at least you know that your work evoked some emotional reaction, however negative it might be. You hope that if somebody takes the time to hate you so much, maybe there are lovers out there that are happy to read in silence.
Get Feedback From Continous Practice
Because I’m an analytical creative, I gauge the success of my writing by how many people read and engage with it. At this point, my public practice has gained over 30,000 email subscribers that read my daily writing at Audio Issues. That’s the sort of statistic that keeps me going, even when the creative part of my brain tells me my work is meaningless.
However, I never would’ve created such a large tribe if I had listened to my inner imposter syndrome and procrastinator. It was the dedication to practicing in public and humbly asking for feedback from my readers that helped me achieve that.
So whatever it is you want to get better at, there is no way around the continuous daily practice you must do to get better.
You can buy a course to help you improve, or hire a teacher to show you the ropes. But ultimately, that dopamine rush of accomplishment you get by investing money in yourself will fade. You can’t hire a great teacher and expect to get better. You can only get better with continuous practice over time.
There is no shortcut.
And if you can’t put in the time to practice, don’t worry, there are plenty of people waiting in line behind you to take your place.