The Laws of Brainjo, Episode 8
The Secret To Staying Motivated
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.“
– Calvin Coolidge
I recently had a personal revelation that I want to share in this installment of the Laws of Brainjo. It’s something that on some level I always knew, but that didn’t really hit my full awareness until just the other day.
It’s a revelation that’s expanded my own understanding of my musical life to this point, one that I think holds the key to helping you keep your motivational fire burning strong.
I’ll get to that revelation in a minute. First, let me briefly address the topic of motivation, and the vital role it plays in the learning process.
THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE IN NATURE
I don’t think much of the idea of “talent.” Some of you already know this.
More specifically, I don’t think much of the notion that our innate pre-dispositions or aptitudes have much to do with our final results. The research on learning – including research on musical mastery – shows this notion to be false.
So if, in the final analysis, talent doesn’t matter, then what does?
The biggest key to getting better, to moving from a beginner to an expert in any field, is simply the act of showing up every day. Your single greatest ally in your musical journey is not your own unique set of inherited helical strands of deoxyribonucleic acid floating around in your cell nuclei. Nope, your single greatest ally is not your genetics, but your will to persist.
It’s your will to persist long enough so that you can change your brain from where it is now, to where you want it to be. No player who reached the pinnacle of expertise ever got there without being persistent. Doggedly, obsessively persistent.
Simply maintaining your will to keep going, to press onward and to learn new things is the single most important thing you can do to continue to grow as a musician.
Flipping this around, the single greatest impediment to continued growth and eventual mastery are the things that sap your motivation to do just that; the things that attempt to thwart your desire to show up every day.
Some days, showing up is easy. Some days, it’s all you want to do.
If you’ve been on this earth for any length of time, however, you’re used to the natural ebb and flow of your will. Motivation is easy when things are new and exciting, but ultimately the shine and newness wears off, and the surrounding excitement fades.
Puppy love only lasts so long. Eventually, passionate infatuation must be replaced by something a bit more substantial.
With learning an instrument, this is combined with the fact that in the early days, when you have zero prior skill, your initial achievements feel monumental. On paper, going from not being able to play an instrument to playing through your first song from start to finish is likely the greatest musical chasm you’ll ever cross. After that, there has to be something more to keep you pressing on.
Every musician experiences lulls in motivation. And for some, the dips become permanent. All those instruments gathering dust in closets and attics around the world bear testament to it.
Sometimes it’s because life has gotten in the way, one way or the other.
But oftentimes fading motivation comes from feeling discouraged. And those feelings of discouragement usually stem from one thing: unmet expectations.
In other words, you feel discouraged when you expect to be at one place, but you’re not there. Maybe your goal when starting out was to play the banjo like [insert famous Player X], to play a certain complicated song up to speed, or be able to improvise with ease in a jam.
Whatever the case, you had a fixed idea of where you wanted to be one day, and you’re not there yet. Maybe not even close. And you wonder whether you ever will be. So you get discouraged.
The problem here, however, isn’t your banjo playing. It’s those very expectations that you’ve set for yourself.
So today I want to show you a better way. A way of viewing your learning process so that those unmet expectations don’t happen. So discouragement doesn’t creep in, sabotaging your all-important desire to persist.
THE ROOT OF SATISFACTION
So back to that revelation.
The other day, I was reflecting back on my life with the banjo, one that began well over a decade ago. In December of 2001 when I received my first banjo, I was a total beginner. If you’d told me then I’d be able to play things I can play now on the banjo, I don’t think I’d have believed you. I can play things now that would have seemed impossibly complicated to my beginner self.
But here’s the revelation I had recently: My enjoyment of playing the banjo has not changed over the years (i.e. – I’ve always loved it!).
Maybe this seems obvious to you, but it contains what I think is an amazingly powerful truth about human nature. While my skill level has increased exponentially, my satisfaction and enjoyment with the tunes I play today is no greater than the satisfaction and enjoyment I derived from those very first songs I learned. In speaking with other players, I think this is a universal phenomenon. But it’s not one you hear about much.
Furthermore, it contradicts the story we often tell ourselves about when we’ll feel satisfied with our playing.
Because that story usually goes something like this: one day I’m gonna get really, really good, and that’s when the real fun will begin. “When I can play like [insert famous Player X], that’s when I’ll have made it. That’s when things get good!” for example.
But the truth, which gets back to that revelation, is that every stage is fun – just as fun as the next, in fact. This idea that “if I get to that point, then I’ll be happy” is an illusion, a fantasy. Not only does it set us up for unmet expectations, but it even sets us up for disappointment once we reach that level and realize that things don’t actually feel any different.
At first this may seem paradoxical. Surely, I wouldn’t enjoy the same sort of thrill I had from those first banjo songs were I to play them now.
So where does that satisfaction and fulfillment come from?
The reason every stage is equally fulfilling is because I’d progressed to some degree. I was playing something on the instrument that perhaps in the prior weeks or months I couldn’t. I’d improved, and that felt great.
By itself, simply playing something complicated or advanced isn’t actually where satisfaction comes from. Satisfaction with your results comes from improving relative to where you’ve just been.
Even better, if we shift our focus to making incremental progress, we’ve substituted an outcome that we may not reach for years – the path to which we can’t even envision yet – for an outcome we know we can reach, where the path to reaching it is obvious.
“How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.“
– Creighton Abrams
ONE BITE AT A TIME
Back when I was a beginner, had I been able to see a video of my current self playing, I would’ve said “yes, I’d like to play like that guy one day.”
Yet, the irony here is that at that time I’d have had no earthly idea how to get there. It was only by breaking up the process of learning the banjo into mastering manageable, incremental steps that the path forward revealed itself.
The danger of setting your sights exclusively on a long term goal is that you have no idea how you’ll get there. If tonight I were to get in my car and drive from Atlanta to Orlando, I’d see nothing but the few feet of road visible in front of my headlights the entire way.
Yet, if I just maintain my focus on staying on that bit of road in front of my car that’s lit up by my headlights, I’ll end up in Orlando. I still had to know in advance that Orlando was my final destination. But to successfully navigate that 450 mile stretch, I didn’t have to know every twist and turn of the road in advance, I just had to focus on remaining on the path I could see in front of me. Furthermore, the way to the next patch of road, the next step in the journey, would only reveal itself once I’d cleared that present stretch of road.
If you focus on making attainable, incremental progress, over time things add up. In incredible ways you could’ve never imagined. And one day you find yourself playing things you never thought possible. But that never happens unless you focus on those small improvements to begin with.
Which brings us to the next Law of Brainjo: