I find it amazing and motivating that humans continue to push the envelope of performance in every domain year after year. I was doing some research on deliberate practice and music and I came across this quote (emphasis mine):
Recently we investigated historical changes in music performance by focusing on the complexity of performed music. We correlated the dates of composition for the piano sonatas by Haydn, Clementi, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, with contemporary complexity ratings published for those works. The results showed that sonatas from later periods tended to be rated more difficult than those from earlier ones.
In a different analysis we documented an increase in the levels of achievement of child prodigies over a comparable time period. We collected information on the degree of precocity of piano prodigies from the last three centuries and found that more recent prodigies had played more difficult pieces at younger ages than their famous predecessors.
Both these increases in the level of music performance can be explained by changes in training which have allowed later performers to achieve higher levels of technical performance faster than previous performers. In sports and music alike, the level of achievement that only a century ago was attributed by contemporaries to the unique innate talents possessed by a performer, is today regularly achieved by a large number of individuals after extended training. These previous levels of expert performance do not appear to require special innate talents, at least by today’s standards, but they are viewed as predictable consequences of appropriate instruction and extended deliberate practice. [source]
Once a new level of achievement has been established by a “genius,” future musicians are able to achieve similar results soon after and eventually it becomes the expected result if one receives the correct instruction and performs the required deliberate practice.
This is not a new idea. There are plenty of examples in sports that come to mind. Summiting Mt. Everest. Climbing The Nose. Running a 4 minute mile. Each of these was impossible until someone did it. After that it was just a matter of time before it was repeated on a regular basis.
Setting the Bar
“Firsts” are inevitably followed by others, often shortly after the original accomplishment. It is tough to know if the achievement triggered others to push themselves harder or if they were right on the verge regardless.
Either way I think it is safe to assume that some people find it impossible to imagine what they can accomplish until they have seen someone else do it. Once the bar has been raised it becomes the new mark to reach for anyone striving within that domain.
When snowshoeing through fresh snow the first in line has to “break trail.” This is a slow and exhausting slog in which the leader must establish footsteps for everyone to follow. Each following hiker tramps the snow further and establishes a more firm and wide path.
In a similar way the elite of every domain are breaking trail for those that will follow in their footsteps. The training, technique, gear, knowledge, etc that helped them reach their peak can be referenced and built on by all those that follow.
This Isn’t Just for the Pros
You don’t need to be a professional musician or athlete to take advantage of this phenomenon. You can leverage the achievements of others at any level and in any domain.
We live in an amazing time where almost anything you can imagine doing has already been done. A pessimist would argue that means there is nothing original left to accomplish, but I would argue that it means there are no limits on what you can accomplish.
Interested in losing weight, traveling the world, or learning a second language? There are millions of people in the world that have achieved the same goals and thousands of them have documented their experience and advice on personal blogs.
You don’t have to wonder if it is possible. Someone has already done it and written a blog on it. You think you can do it better? Go nuts! But you can’t make the excuse that isn’t possible. There is just too much proof to the contrary.
The Road Less Traveled
When I tell people that I am teaching myself how to play guitar in my thirties I get some puzzled looks and hear about how impossible my goal is.
- “If you don’t learn as a child it is impossible to pick it up as an adult.”
- “Learning a musical instrument is really hard!”
- “It just takes too much time.”
I often feel like I am breaking trail when I try to explain my reasoning or sit down to practice every day.
Obviously I am not the first thirty year old guy with zero music training trying to teach himself to play guitar… yet I have struggled to find my trailblazers online. I would love to find a blog written by someone who has already done what I am doing and could show my the well traveled path.
Until then I will continue to slog my way forward one step at a time. If you have been through this or know someone who has I hope you will share it in the comments. It would sure be nice to let someone else take the lead for awhile.