The journey starts off fun. The developments come thick and fast. Every day yields some form of improvement.
But soon, the pace slackens. The gains become harder to attain. Repetition becomes the rule not the exception. The sense of novelty wears off and must be replaced with hard work and commitment. Things that were hard become easy. What was easy becomes hard.
Soon, you begin to ask yourself, “How can I break free from my weaknesses? What must I do to get better?”
Whatever level you’re at—mediocre, good, great—I can tell you what you’re going to need to ascend to the next echelon.
It’s taken a year to be this good? It’ll take two to be that good. Want to be the best? You have to train, practice and play every single day, for decades. Each step up the ladder of mastery takes a magnitude more time than the previous. Average to good could take six months. From one of the best to the best of all time could take ten years.
To the performance of your craft. To the trends and movements in your field. To your own style, tendencies, strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. To your competitors and their performance. To your own health, environment and energy. To cultural shifts and technological evolutions. To everything.
As you get better, experimentation occupies a larger part of your time. Relentless tinkering is the process that will drive the increasingly marginal gains you’ll make in your ability. And the more you experiment, the harder it becomes to make further experiments. You have to find new techniques. You have to deconstruct and rebuild your own (and other’s) processes and methods. You have to try new forms and mediums.
Not physical, but intellectual courage, which is the ability to welcome uncertainty, doubt and disorder. It’s the capacity to entertain and work with ideas, concepts, frameworks and beliefs that conflict with those ideas you love most. It’s the ability to embrace, rather than flee, the unpalatable, the unfamiliar and the unknown.
You’ll have to look further afield, travel wider, study more diverse methods and learn from obscure people. You’ll have to step out from the bubble you’ve created for yourself and search out the unconventional. You’ll have to observe and learn from the extremes, seek out a vast array of influences and inspirations. You’ll have to spend more energy examining the mass of unexamined sources and ideas.
What makes the beginnings of the journey so exhilarating is that almost every day you see visible signs of progress. But as you ascend, the visible leaps in your ability decrease in size and stop flowing so freely. More self-reliance means working without visible signs of progress, without motivation, without the “right” conditions. It means doing the work in absence of everything that is used to motivate those at the beginning of their journey.
And what sustains you through all of this? Through the loss of easily obtained motivation? Through the removal of novelty? Through the hard times, through the darkness, through the heart ache, through the uncertainty and the doubt?
When you start, you don’t need love. There’s enough to keep you going. But as you learn, as you develop, the low hanging fruit are all plucked away.
The only thing that keeps you climbing is love. The inability to imagine yourself doing anything else but this. The willingness to sacrifice many things you thought mattered to you.
Of course, you don’t have to go to the next level. We can’t aspire to greatness in every pursuit. There’s not enough time and we don’t have enough energy. But whenever we do want to improve, whenever we do want to get better and reach the next level, we know what it’s going to take:
More time, more attention, more experimentation, more courage, more exploration, more self-reliance, and ultimately, a greater love of what you do.