Make it more difficult

Make it more difficult
Classical guitar @Hatef Yamini
The Wild Man doesn't come to full life through being “natural,” going with the flow, smoking weed, reading nothing, and being generally groovy. Ecstasy amounts to living within reach of the high voltage of the golden gifts. The ecstasy comes after thought, after discipline imposed on ourselves, after grief.
– Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men.
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.
– Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons

We want everything to be easier. That’s our first instinct, and it works most of the time. But there are times when we need a different approach.

When I started classical guitar lessons, I was 50 years old and way past my prime. Nevertheless, I committed to learning. My obvious lack of musical talent became apparent immediately. To make progress, I knew I’d have to practice, a lot. The first two years of learning guitar were frustrating.

The same frustration can occur with any endeavor that requires diligent effort and concerted practice: sports, photography, writing, painting, public speaking, communication, leadership, etc.

These skills take a lot of time to learn or master, and we all know they take a lot of practice.

But very few people know how to practice. And it turns out, how you practice is in some ways more important than how much you practice.

Because if you practice the wrong way, you invite failure and injury. You might even give up entirely because you mistakenly believe it’s hopeless, and you’ll never improve.

Practice vs. Performance

The key to practicing well, is to understand the distinction between practicing and performing.

Specifically, when we play or perform, we try to make it easier, but when we practice, we try to make it more difficult.

For example, when we play guitar for an audience, we investigate how to play chords or transitions with the least effort and the most efficient movements.

But when we practice guitar, we try to make the technical exercises more challenging. We make the stretches harder, or we play excruciatingly slow to perfect the tone. It’s no wonder musical practice activities are called “exercises.” As if to hint that they’re supposed to be difficult and uncomfortable.

How to practice

To practice effectively, use these general principles:

  • Practice deliberately. The researcher, Anders Ericsson coined the term deliberate practice to describe the process of breaking down activities into smaller units, then practicing each component. For example, golfers break down the stroke into 4-6 separate phases, from the pre-shot to the follow-through. Each phase can be practiced and perfected. You wouldn’t simply practice your stroke, rather, you would practice an individual component of the stroke.
  • Make it more difficult. For example, on the guitar, there are various “spider exercises” that force the left hand into difficult contortions that build strength, dexterity, and flexibility. These are inherently not musical exercises. The whole point is that they are significantly more difficult to perform than the typical passage of music.
  • Narrow your frame. One compelling way to make things more difficult is to narrow your frame. Take a cue from Igor Stravinsky and apply some form of artificial discipline to focus your mind and your effort. Stravinsky famously locked himself in his studio for days on end, to focus his mind. Understandably, you will not want to lock yourself away for days at a time, but find other ways to narrow your frame so you can focus your energy.

Make things more difficult

The importance of this fundamental principle cannot be overstated. If you master this, you will accelerate your path in whatever field you pursue.

Chart your path forward with deliberate practice by identifying what aspects of your practice can be made more difficult.

Do this for anything you want to improve, from dating to swimming to making a pitch to investors. Anything can be practiced and improved. Start by making the practice more difficult. Then doing it will be easy.