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How Do You Get Good at Things?

Content note: This piece does not answer the question it raises.

To get good at something, you need to do a lot of it. If you do a lot of something, you will get good at it.

Let’s say you buy into that pair of ideas wholly, which you should, because they are true. How do you go about doing the thing? There are plenty of people who are willing to believe they will become good piano players if they put in 10,000 hours, but how do they actually follow through on taking their own prescription?

You go to Amazon and buy the first book on how to play the piano. You purchase a piano and place it in your room. You schedule a lesson with an instructor who shows you your first set of exercises.

How do you do those exercises every day when the teacher leaves? How do you work through the book? How do you do make those and similar decisions 10,000 hours in a row?

I don’t actually know the answer. I want to cover some possibilities though.

Discipline Imposed by Others

I recently wrote a post about how I made my daughter the best climber in her class. I stand by every word of it.

Still, there’s something to be said about the scale of one’s ambition. My daughter is the best climber out of 20-something semi-random kids. As far as I know, none of her peers were ever encouraged at all to develop their climbing.

She might go on to become an Olympic climber if she’s extraordinarily committed to it1, but that isn’t a goal of mine for her. Becoming an Olympian is a tall mountain to get up, and I won’t be dragging her up it.

If you are a particular kind of parent, you might though. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother describes her doing just that for her two children. But Chua is granite. Her will will not be bent. Mine most certainly will. I simply won’t discipline myself to discipline my daughter to do something she doesn’t want to do for hours each day.

Even Chua is unable to do it indefinitely with both children. Her younger daughter eventually rebels against the endless violin practices. When she takes up tennis, which she has an actual interest in, she excels quickly. She does so without endless grinding against her mother’s plan for her, and instead takes up a healthy activity that, frankly, is far more attractive than violin to the prestigious colleges that Chua planned for her daughter to attend.

Discipline Imposed by Oneself

I suspect this is what people try after reading a book like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. He says work for 10,000 hours, so start working those hours.

The Atlantic wrote recently about Dan McLaughlin, who tried to 10,000-hours his way into the PGA tour. He had no prior golfing experience and seemingly no particular interest in golf but instead was curious as to whether he could do something he had never done before well.

He failed. Quite publicly, due to injury.

If you want to become a professional in a ruthlessly competitive field that large numbers of people willingly pay money to do, then that is an order-of-magnitude difference than merely becoming very good at something. And Dan is a very good golfer:

Barely over halfway through, he’d pared his handicap to an all-time low of 2.6—a mark achieved by fewer than 6 percent of golfers.

That is what practice does. I promise you that you could get together any number of people who have never played golf before regardless of their fortunate genetics and none of them will be able to keep up with Dan.

Dan is almost certainly a good enough golfer to get a job somewhere within the golfing industry. For example, he might be a good coach should he choose that path and have some additional important skills. If he succeeds in that, it will be a direct consequence of his practice.

What practicing might not get you is into the PGA circuit. Dan is competing against people who have intrinsic passion in the sport. They practice and don’t think about it as practice. They’ve been doing it a lot longer than Dan. Very few people can manufacture that level of commitment for something that is just an experiment rather than a genuine passion. Passionate people rack up hours effortlessly while Dan was disciplining himself to practice as part of a project.

I have hobbies of my own that I’ve tried to discipline myself to spend time on: jogging and playing the guitar. These are things I believe would be healthy for me to do. And I do do them occasionally and stop often, until the next surge of motivation.

I haven’t given up on these exactly. I jogged once last week and my guitar is somewhere around here. Still, each time I do either requires a conscious decision. I am going to go for a run now. I am going to practice the guitar now.

Habit

People do plenty of stuff they don’t love and don’t have to discipline themselves to do. These are habits.

This seems like a miracle solution to me, and it’s a reason I’ve read my fair share about developing habits.

What I can remember about the consensus on habit formation is this:

  1. Try to anchor your new habit onto an existing habit. For example, if you already brush your teeth every day and want to start running, use the end of brushing your teeth as your trigger to start your run.
  2. Remove barriers to starting. For example, if you want to play your guitar, leave it out, tuned, and in the way. Leave your music open on a music stand.
  3. Discipline yourself for some number of days, say 21. After that, the discipline required to maintain the habit should be minimal.
  4. Make your new habit small. For example, when establishing your habit, play just 1 minute of guitar or do just one pushup.

Regarding this last point, it’s been made by several people, but among them is BJ Fogg, who runs Tiny Habits.

It’s worth looking at Fogg’s feedback to people planning habits. He declares nearly every one to be too ambitious. To take a typical example, someone wanted to try the habit

After I brush my teeth I’ll floss for thirty seconds.

He revised it to

After I brush my teeth, I’ll floss one tooth.

Another example is that this habit

After I get to my office, I will write down top three goals for work.

which was revised to

After I sit down to start my day, I will write “1” ” 2″ and “3” on a piece of paper.

In this case, the anchor was changed to something more specific (sitting down), and the required action is truly tiny (writing down three numbers).

About the only thing I’ve managed to establish such a habit for is learning Chinese. I remain convinced that if I could just design myself to have the right habits I’d be living a much better life, but it’s awful hard to get there.

Passion

If I remember correctly, Jason Kuznicki is a real runner. He actually loves running. Accordingly, he’s done much more of it than I and is much faster too. I don’t get the impression that he’s disciplined himself to become fast. He just likes running.

For most of us, accumulating 10,000 hours in an activity is a consequence of having found something you like–or at least something you acquired a taste for.

Unless you are a machine able to program yourself2 , you will only be able to dedicate significant effort to activities you find intrinsically rewarding. It logically makes sense for me to run and run repeatedly several times per week. But I don’t, because I don’t love running on any particular day. I can discipline myself into it a few times when I have the excess mental capacity to wonder about my health, but that’s never going to amount to a marathon.

While we implore people to do what they love, I’m not sure everyone has something they love to the nearly obsessive extent required to rack up effortless hours of practice. One of my somewhat consistent habits is writing, and I can’t really say I love it. It’s something I am comfortable keeping as a hobby indefinitely. It’s been my pleasure to read writers better than I on this site for a few years, and it is quite obvious to me that some of them are having more fun writing than I ever expect to.

Learning to Love

Why do people love things?

I don’t know. But I have some guesses.

In general, people like things they are already pretty good at. Doing something well—better than others—makes us feel good about ourselves and so we can develop an affection for the activity itself.

People like things they can feel themselves getting better at.

One of the reasons I love rock climbing is I can tackle a wall, fail, and try several more times getting a bit further as I figure out how to do it properly. This gives you a sense of upward trajectory that makes you happy and that is reflected in your feelings toward the activity in general.

I think that’s basically it. I tried getting my daughter to ride her balance bike, and never got very far. Then all of the sudden she saw a kid younger than her riding and wanted to catch up, which she is doing pretty rapidly. She’s now excited and happy about this activity she didn’t like before.

Looking back at my daughter’s behavior, it seems she made an ruthlessly rational choice. She didn’t want to put effort into the activity when she wasn’t seeing returns from it. Seeing another person made her optimistic again about seeing returns. Now that she is actually making progress, she is willing to invest effort. Investing effort where and when you see rewards seems like pretty intelligent behavior to me.

There’s a peculiar type of love for an activity that deserves special mention here. It’s flow. Here’s Wikipedia on it:

Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:

  1. “Immediate feedback”
  2. Feeling that you have the potential to succeed
  3. Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Csikszentmihályi lists three condtions for flow:

One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.

The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.

One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

But those conditions are speculative. They weren’t empirically derived with a large sample. So, we get Schaffer in 2013 proposing seven flow conditions:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

If I try to distill this list, it sounds like people achieve flow by believing they are awesome. They should do something that they think is hard, but they are actually good at it because they are really good at that thing.

So, while a master pianist is in flow, they are doing something they are already great at, know they are great at, and nevertheless still feel challenged by.

If you can believe this about your own play, then you can practice the piano and even skip meals and forget to go to sleep because you are enjoying yourself so much.

piano photoUnfortunately, if you aren’t actually already a pretty good player, you probably can’t convince yourself that you are. Instead, you will press some keys and realize it sounds awful. You have to practice past the awfulness before you can practice in flow.

That sounds hard, but some people are doing it as we speak. Future great piano players are now playing terribly on their way to being great. What gets them to play?Notes:

  1. Sport climbing is deservedly going to be part of the 2020 Olympics! []
  2. I do believe there are people who are able to do this, but let’s assume we don’t want to []

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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21 thoughts on “How Do You Get Good at Things?

  1. The habit form works best for me. Frankly, I don’t have “natural talent” in jujitsu. But I’ve seen progress in terms of skill, flexibility, and capability. Moves I couldn’t perform a year ago I can do, or can do better. I’ll never have the passion or drive to become a black belt, and I’m not motivated to go to class 6 days a week to get my blue belt asap, but I enjoy the classes, the company, and the skills improvement.

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  2. Check out Gretchen Rubin’s work. She has written about habits (Better Than Before) and about how to motivate ourselves (The Four Tendencies- this may be coming out in September). She has really helped me!

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  3. One of the strongest points made in Talent is Overrated is that doing something for a long period of time won’t necessarily make you any better at it, though it will make you more confident in your expertise. That is, police officers with 20 years on the force believe they are better at detecting when someone is lying, but empirical tests say they aren’t.

    Other elements need to be present for learning to happen. There needs to be feedback on correct vs. incorrect. And their needs to be activity/drills that are just challenging enough. Routine + 1, as some people call it. Never quite comfortable.

    Another thing that a good teacher can provide is a breakdown on skills, and activities (exercises) that provide that Routine + 1 experience.

    I believe this is where Dan McGlaughlin went off course. He put in the hours, but they weren’t that structured or focused on getting him to a PGA level of skill. He was focused, that’s not what I mean. But he didn’t know what he didn’t know, which is a pretty common problem for an outsider trying to self-teach.

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    • A story from rock climbing:

      When I started, rock climbing looked like nothing more than crazy people with crazy muscles climbing crazy ladders.

      Now I realize that, yes, these people are crazy and they have crazy muscles, but there’s a *LOT* of technique. I’ve learned to look at their feet rather than at their hands. When I first started, my rock climbing buddy gave me a lecture about how to use one’s arms that, seriously, just whistled as it passed through my ears. Now, I look back on his speech and say “OH THAT’S WHAT HE WAS SAYING”.

      And most of the people I talk to at the gym tell me stories about how they’ve been doing this schtuff for years and years and when they started they didn’t have anybody to explain stuff like the hip thing, and the arms should be either fully extended or tight to the body thing, or the triangle thing. And they got a speech one day from a stranger out on the cliff that TOTALLY changed how they think about climbing.

      And, of course, I was lucky to get that speech at this point in my climbing career. Yeah.

      Anyway, Dan McGlaughlin didn’t hit PGA level skill, but he got down to a seriously respectable handicap. The attitude that says that if you’re not in the 1% of the 1% of the 1% after practice, practice, practice needs to lighten up. If you can go from bottom quartile to top quartile, that ain’t bad.

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      • I think your last point is really the lynchpin.

        “10,000 will make you great!”
        “PGA great? Or like better than almost everyone but will only make money at local golf outings great?”
        “I dunno… great!”

        10,000 hours… or hard work and practice done well will almost certainly yield dividends. Whether you are successful or not depends on two things: your definition of success and how your individual self translates work into dividends.

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  4. An interesting corollary question might be: How do you make your peace with the fact that you might NOT get good at some things?

    I am learning to play the piano. I have taken lessons for about 7 years as an adult. I realize that if I wanted to be a professional pianist, or even a v. good amateur, I (a) should have started learning at about 4 years old instead of 40 and (b) I need to carve more than an hour a day out to practice (But I have to work full time, keep my house to some minimum standard of hygiene, keep my bills paid, exercise, sleep….)

    Recently I’ve had a nagging concern that I may just never be very good. I can struggle – with numerous weeks of practice – through some of the Baroque/Classical pieces (I can play some of Bach’s Anna Magdalena pieces acceptably well, others not so much), I can work my way through arrangements of standards- but I make LOTS of mistakes, unacceptably many to my mind (my teacher seems to think I’m doing okay, at least she hasn’t fired me yet) and I don’t have the CONFIDENCE you have to have of knowing you’ll put your finger down and it will be on the right note. (I work very hard not to “try to memorize the music and then look at the keyboard” because previous experiments with that have turned out badly – my memory is not as good as I think it is for music).

    I don’t know. When things are going well I enjoy it which is why I keep doing it, but on bad days….it’s just hard.

    I think also I have a bit of a sense of duty – this is an old (nearly 100 years old) piano inherited from a grandfather, and I feel kind of like “I should not have this if I am not going to play it” though there is no one else in my family currently who wants it (not my brother and sister-in-law even though they have a child who might be the right age to start learning if she were interested, not any of my cousins).

    I don’t know. A friend of mine tells me my problem is “You are good at too many things so you struggle when you find something you have to work very hard at” and I suspect he is partly right there.

    For me, it’s lately been all about learning to make my peace with kind of sucking at the piano. Maybe someday I’ll get good, I don’t know. I’m better than I was when I first started but I’m not as much better as I envisioned myself being.

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    • I think makes the point most near my own thoughts. I have waaaay too many hobbies. I find myself to be somewhere between mediocre and competent at most of them, and the question I am always asking is whether or not I want to put in the time to be great at any of them. Cooking is something I want to be great at. I do my homework, practice and have a general plan for reaching a high level of competence someday. Conversely, with woodworking, I enjoy it but I will settle for ‘okay’.

      Even within a hobby, I’ve also realized that you can commit to mastering certain aspects but not all, if the hobby is big enough. I will never be an amazing wingshot with my shotgun and probably never more than competent with my bow. I’m just not passionate about attaining a high-level of excellence with either one. But I am a very good at other aspects of hunting. I’m excellent with a turkey or duck call. I’m also, in general, pretty good at hunting both. I know how they behave, how to use the decoys, what goes into a successful hunt. In the case of calling, I put in my practice reps. In the case of general competence, it was years of experience.

      ……..

      Vikram, I will also add that I loved this post. I really enjoy hearing about, and seeing people that have achieved a level of excellence at anything. I’ve often told the story about how much I enjoy watching a really good short-order cook at Waffle House. I guess ultimately I like seeing someone demonstrate the potential we all have inside us.

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  5. Something this post got me thinking about was the way in which we may develop a “target skill” by working on other, related skills… some of which may be obvious and some of which may be not.

    Imagine two guys trying to learn the guitar. They each practice 2 hours a day, every day of the week. But one guy seems to be getting better faster than the other guy. This may be because the basic assumptions that underly this post are false. It may be because of some inherent differences between the two… which only sort of partly undermines the premise of this post. But maybe the guy who is improving more rapidly and achieves a higher level of greatness in the end was doing a whole bunch of other things that helped propel him there. Maybe he commuted an hour each way to work during which he listened to music. Not necessarily to train him for guitar but because he liked it. Meanwhile, the other guy had a 5 minute walk to work. Maybe our apparent virtuoso grew up knitting and maintained it as a part time hobby, developing his finger dexterity in a way that our other friend didn’t. Etc.

    This line of thinking supports the theory proposed here but also demonstrates just how complicated the acquisition of a skill is.

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  6. ” Future great piano players are now playing terribly on their way to being great. What gets them to play?”

    In my experience, scaffolding. By which I mean, you aren’t trying to be a great player like (insert amazing player here), you are setting Very Reasonable Goals (ie just out of reach) and trying to get great at those, while continuing to set the bar just out of reach. (Either for yourself, if you have a lot of practice at doing so, or with the aid of a coach or mentor(s), otherwise or maybe even if you’re already good at it – I know professional musicians who still benefit from taking lessons…)

    “High perceived skills” in flow is about the satisfaction of being pretty good at the pretty challenging thing you are trying to master, and all the stuff that comes before it (on your particular journey) that you already have mastered, not about a relative comparison to the best people at something.

    It’s why so many video gamers spend so much time in flow, because most modern high-regarded games have figured out scaffolding really well.

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    • I would also note that “scaffolding” for someone with immense immediate ability to pick up a particular set of skills can push them leaps and bounds beyond “scaffolding” for someone who struggles more – because their steps along the journey are in 7-league boots (for whatever reason! this is not a nature-not-nurture comment!!!) vs someone else’s scuffed-up kicks.

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      • (I’m borrowing heavily from Vygotsky of course but a) he didn’t invent the term, b) so do the flow people.)

        Another interesting idea in this realm, and one that I think you, Vikram, would find especially fruitful, is Schon’s idea of reflective practice. Mostly that gets explored in the workplace-related contexts he was writing about, but one can fairly easily translate the concepts.

        Here’s an Atlantic article about the need for movement and play that has some great stuff about reflection in it too: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/05/why-young-kids-learn-through-movement/483408/

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        • Curious how much you know about Vygotsky and how you came to be familiar with him. I’m pretty firmly in his camp on a number of topics regarding education but find him to be pretty much unknown outside of education circles… and sometimes even inside them!

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          • I’d say I’m more passingly familiar than anything. A lot of my library school profs came from an education background, the school in general leans social constructivist, so we had to know about him in 3 or 4 of my classes (different areas of his work) but I’ve never made a thorough study. In general, we were expected to be at least passingly familiar with educational theory given that so much of librarianship is teaching.

            A lot of Vygotsky’s concepts, eg zone of proximal development, are both really insightful and clearly expressed. And also crop up in all kinds of other places, either through direct influence, indirect influence, or convergent evolution :D. So he stuck with me more than some other thinkers.

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            • Yea, I’m a big fan. As you say, much of his work was on how the human brain learns, not on how we ought to teach (though obviously the latter follows from the former) so he has wider applicability.

              I generally adhere to a social-constructivist approach. I also like some of Piaget’a work, especially around assimilation/accomodation… which explains SO MUCH about why adults can be such stubborn learners in even the most general of terms.

              I hate when people frame the two as “versus” one another. They did disagree on a few key things but also have lots of overlap with ideas that ultimately build on one another… ZPD being a bit of a unifying force.

              Also much of V’s work is so intuitive when you think about it. If you say ZPD, people’s eyes glaze over. If you explain it, everyone goes, “Of course! That happened to me with blahblahblah.”

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  7. When I started to learn how to dance, I was miserable at it. The teacher of the first group class approached me afterwards and bluntly told me that I needed private lessons. I was obstinate and unwilling to be defeated, so I started talking private lessons. After thousands of hours (this isn’t an exaggeration but a calculation) classes and lessons and just going out social dancing, I’m a pretty good dancer. I can general take any class and do all right and not get loss. There are lots of people who are much better than me at dance though because they either worked harder and longer and they have more natural ability though.

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  8. From what I can tell, the best virtuosos in any field are a result of starting young, natural talent, genuine interest, and putting a lot of work in. The putting a lot of work in is where the genuine interest helps because it makes the entire thing seem more interesting than it would be to somebody who hates the task. See Amy Chua’s second daughter on the violence and at tennis. For her playing the violin was like working a job you loathed beyond belief but kept to because you need to pay rent, eat, clothe yourself, etc. Tennis is like a hobby your really into. Most people naturally find it easier to devote long hours to hobbies than unpleasant jobs.

    The starting young thing is important because you have more time and energy when your young, your body doesn’t have inbuilt habits if your doing something athletic, and the economics are easier because your parents will be supporting you hopefully. The natural talent is important because it gives you a better base. I managed to improve a lot at dance but I’m not a naturally graceful. flexible or musical person. People with natural grace, flexibility, or musical ability are going to better than somebody with no base at all.

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    • Also you have greater brain flexibility when young to learn new things. I’ve seen lots of people (some who have researched it) talking about how kids naturally become bilingual more easily than adults. I learned French as a tween and am much better at it (understanding spoken and written French, and being able to speak it) than I am at the German I’ve worked intermittently at as an adult.

      I also think kids are better at having what is sometimes called “beginner’s mind” – the ability to put up with “kinda sucking” at something without an inner critic immediately pouncing. I sometimes wonder if part of my lack of confidence with the piano was a teacher in school implying I had no talent for the clarinet (shortly after that I gave it up forever) and if somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder if “lacks musical talent” is just a trait I have, even though objectively I seem to be okay at the piano for an adult learner with probably not enough time to practice.

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  9. Hodge-podge of thoughts:

    I have no particular reason to suspect that X hours of practice is what it takes to get “good” at something, for any X. It seems a necessary but insufficient factor.

    Seems to me that ability distributions are… real, anyway.

    I doubt I could make pro golfer with 10,000 hours of practice (aw, my back!)

    I probably couldn’t make a pro painter with 10,000 hours of practice (I don’t love it enough).

    I could possibly make professor-grade mathematician with less than 10,000 hours of practice; I have some aptitude on the higher end of the distribution curve.

    I am pretty sure I am never going to be a professional novelist, because regardless of prqctice I don’t seem to have a voice that works that way, and I think this is brain wiring… maybe if I started younger. On the other hand, I could be a decent essayist with dedication towards editing (and probably nothing more than a horrible poet.)

    I am not a big believer in determinism in the sense that your abilities are entirely constrained by genetics or epigenetics.

    On the other hand, I am pretty sure that “you can be anything you want” isn’t true either.

    In my current estimation, you need four things to be really successful at anything, for “successful” = “exemplary”:

    (a) capability
    (b) training
    (c) support, and
    (d) a lot of dumb luck.

    The first is both your genetic talents plus your own internal leverage to use them, the second is both your own practice and the guidance of existing experts in how to get the most out of your practice, the third is both access opportunities provided by your community, family, etc. and support to get you over the plateaus when your own internal leverage fails you (when the grit ain’t there), and the last is both the ability to be in the right place at the right time, and the ability to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    In the context of the overall picture, very little of that, actually, is self-supplied. The self-supplied stuff is still damn important, but the odds of it being enough if you’re not getting everything else are very low.

    Also: I suspect that there’s a high correlation between “people who really are damn good at something” and “folks who hit a natural plateau in their advancement in that thing that happened to coincide, developmentally, with being able to get past stuff”

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