A guide for late-starters and others who have the deck stacked against them.

Many people have excusitis, the habit of making excuses, that prevents them from achievement. This is an incredibly useful idea, and whenever you have an obstacle of some sort, excusitis should be your prime suspect.

If you are poor and have a family to support, if you have a serious disease on top of that and live in a non-free country, can you still become an Olympic athlete or an international chess master? Given that you are just starting to learn your sport (or chess), and you are already an adult?

Maybe, do not get stuck on this thought. But you have to do something with those obstacles!

Before diving into the land (or the pond) of obstacles, let us revisit the land of opportunity. Why is it so important to try before writing yourself off because you are too old, too sick, too poor, and so forth? Here I am only speaking about skill mastery as this is a subject I have thought about for decades; we are not discussing winning a beauty contest.

You have got a chance no matter your circumstances

The bar is rising; the highest achievement in every field is getting higher. A mathematical theorem that used to fill a small book can now be communicated to graduate students in two hours, thanks to the modern mathematical machinery. Sir Roger Bannister was the first human to run a mile in less than 4 minutes in 1954, yet thousands have repeated the feat since then. 32 ballet fouettes have been first performed in the late XIX-th century , not so long after dancing on pointe had been invented in the first place. Yet consider Lada Sartakova performing 32 fouettes at age 7. Clearly, it took her less than 7 years to get there

The fact that the bar is rising means that the stars of tomorrow will perform at an even higher level, due to the improved training. This means that the top level of today is not the top level humanly possible. Consider that Sir Roger Bannister was an amateur, who had set a then-world record with minimal training! It may not be possible today, but perhaps you can still set a running world record with only 5 or 10 years of training, and at a somewhat older age? You may not stand a chance in 2050, but you may stand a chance today, if you use the tools that will be mainstream in 2050. Historian will look back and reflect, “2020s was a time when you could still achieve X without having had the advantage of Y, if you only did Z…”

Science and technology open up avenues for faster improvement that were unthinkable before. Medicine allows you to fix or compensate for deficiencies that used to be deal-breakers. Internet allows unprecedented access to training techniques and insights, while transportation makes it much easier to access in-person training.

Ultimately, unless you are already an expert in the field, you are a poor judge of what is and what is not possible.

Could you at least become #99 in the world?

There is an overused example of height in basketball as being a natural, untrainable part of the skill. In my terminology, height is strictly not a part of the skill; it is an aspect contributing to your performance and ultimately, together with your skill, determining your results. It seems reasonable to say that a taller player is less skilled than a shorter player, if they are getting similar results.

Life is not fair, and some people need greater skill than others to get the same results. A jew in the Soviet Union needed to perform better — in college, for example — to get the same results as an ethnic Russian, such as becoming a tenured professor at a top university. Sometimes the advantage others have is more “fair”, such as with height in basketball: it actually helps one to play better. Same goes for having received quality early training. Sometimes the advantage others have is “unfair”, such as with being a jew in the Soviet Union: skilled scientists were limited in their ability to add value to society, a net loss to everyone.

Life is unfair on multiple levels: you may need more time and effort to acquire the same level of skill, you may need more skill to demonstrate the same performance that others demonstrate, and finally, you may need to perform at a higher level to be recognized in the same way others are.

Therefore, your relative achievement can also be celebrated and enjoyed. Perhaps you cannot win an Olympic gold when starting at your age; how about becoming a national champion in the 40+ group? Perhaps you were labeled “special needs” as a child and barely finished middle school, so international math or chess competitions seem out of reach; how about becoming #1 in your city? Even an “adjusted” skill target may be worthwhile. Two examples come to my mind: a male yoga teacher I know from NYC and a female swing dance teacher I know from my time in Pennsylvania. I have witnessed both of them when they were not so great. Neither of them is world class, yet both teach internationally. Neither of them does it as their only activity.

Let me make it clear, you do not get a participation trophy! All I am saying is, being #1 in the world is not the only place to aim at; #99 in the world is still a lot of fun! If you have a few “objective” obstacles, it is fine to aim for mastery in your weight class, so to say. The effort and the rewards involved are still immense, and you can always scale up your ambitions as you get better.

Obstacle #1: not starting early

The motivational fantasyland above has only two purposes: get you started, and keep you going. It does not by itself get you to the destination. The obstacles can be glanced over when you are embarking on a journey; yet during the journey, the obstacles should be taken most seriously.

Every teacher out there advocates for starting early. Whatever it is, you would be doing better, had you started yesterday. Some fields are particularly religious about it; if you are 25 and have never played an instrument, people will say you have no chance of becoming a concert pianist.

One reason such cliches are tossed around is that, well, you have to explain it to people somehow, that you can’t just play piano 2-3 times a week following random lessons from YouTube and expect to gather full concert halls a few years down the line. Neither can somebody who has started playing at age eight! As if it was not enough, not everyone starting at age eight makes it to a concert hall At the same time, most people on the receiving end of the advice are not at all prepared to play piano 2-3 times a week for a few years which, as mentioned, is not even close to what is required for anything approaching mastery or anything approaching success, though you might start getting gigs at a local piano bar.

If you dissect the need to start early, the problem is not usually the early age per se. There is no proof that there is a hard-cut critical period for piano, chess, ballet, or zillions of other skills, after which mastery is impossible. If anything, there is growing evidence that for many skills, there may be no (hard) critical period, so theoretically, there should be no age limit. There may still be a soft critical period, after which learning is possible, but requires more time and resources, leaving mastery as a possible but impractical goal.

As a personal example, as a child I had untreated strabismus and was essentially stereoblind (unable to see depth). I have first gained the ability to see depth and judge distances in my late twenties, soon after attending an unconventional eye-training retreat with Peter Grunwald. By “unconventional” I mean that we connected to parts of our eyes in meditation, “interviewed” our left and right cornea, retina, and vitreous humor with the help of a partner, did “sunning” and “palming” first popularized by William Bates. The exercises allowed to learned to access my binocular system, though not to improve acuity, which is what is advertised by the Bates’ practitioner; in any case, I had only played with it for a couple months. Peculiarly, even after it had happened, a consilium (!) of doctors at New York Eye & Ear, a preeminent clinic and #11 in US News Ranking in Adult Ophthalmology, denied my direct perceptual experience on the basis that it was theoretically impossible and recommended surgery to realign my eyes, which I declined. This had weakened my trust in recognized “experts”: imagine seeing something, yet subsequently being told by a panel of experts at a top institution that you do not see what you see. You may read more on the subject in Susan Barry’s book “Fixing My Gaze”. Susan Barry, a neuroscientist, had taught for three decades that acquiring stereovision — a much more foundational skill than chess or dancing — was impossible past a few years of early childhood, until the same happened to her in her fifties! Yet even those scientists familiar with the subjects, the optometrists, continued to maintain that while “simple depth perception” can be developed at any age, the ability to see random dot stereograms cannot, as it depends on some highly specific cortical structures formed in the early childhood. Nevertheless, I did develop this ability as well — after some 7 years in weekly vision therapy with a world-class expert in binocular vision — coming from zero ability at age twenty-five. So much for the “critical periods”!

The idea of critical period as it relates binocular vision was first tested on kittens. Those poor creatures were wearing special glasses, purposely inducing strabismus (eye misalignment). When the glasses were later removed, it was tracked, which kittens eventually learned to use their eyes in a binocular fashion — an invaluable skill for catching a flying bird. Largely useless when dealing with cat food!

What those researches did not do was put those kittens through seven years of vision therapy. Neither did the kittens do the weird eye-meditation exercises. You may have to study statistics in depth to understand it properly, but the gist is this: the observational data is based on “normal” individuals, except in the case of kittens for the purposely-induced child strabismus. The causal conclusion is then made once again based on “normal” individuals. All we can say is, a kitten or a human who has missed the critical period, when left to their own devices, is unlikely to develop proper binocular vision, in stark contrast to one who has not missed it — then the development is nearly 100% guaranteed, with no additional effort! Yet it provides no evidence as to what happens in the counterfactual scenarios. The researchers cannot really conclude, what is possible when you teach kittens — or humans — some advanced exercises, or train them to solve random-dot stereograms.

Technically, the studies of the visual system can also rely on measuring brain activity, so the claim that something is impossible can also be made on the basis of no detected activity in a particular region. It is, however, implausible that achievement of mastery in any domain can require activity in a brain region that is completely silent in mediocre practitioners.

By analogy, thus there is hope, but additional effort may be required. There is probably no limit to becoming a piano or a chess prodigy, but you may need an additional 7 years of carefully guided exercises to get to where they were naturally. That is, say, you are 20 years old, and you want to be the next Magnus Carlsen. You spend 7 years of careful effort, and you end up where he was at 5, when he had first learned the game! You can start before somebody is born, and still be two years behind — had I told you that life is not fair?

Magnus became a grandmaster at age 13, which is 8 years later. Therefore, from age 27 to 35 you now need to practice with the same volume and intensity as Magnus. Will you get the same results by age 35? Consider that

  • Magnus was coached by top players. So need you.
  • Magnus did not have to make a living, though he probably had to attend school.
  • Magnus did not have the same level of self-doubts you are likely to have, after you had already invested considerable resources over the previous 7 years!

Do you see the difficulties? If you have a job and you also spend the same amount of time and effort on chess practice, what other time do you have in your life? After all, you also need time and resources to figure out where to rent an apartment, where to invest your savings, and what doctor to go to. That all assumes you are not interested in dating. How are you going to even make enough money to pay those top players to coach you? How are you going to motivate yourself, when you feel like a beginner after the seven years, when you meet a kid who can do the same after one day? (Answer: just give it another year. You will get ahead of that kid, I promise.)

These are exactly my points. The obstacles of not starting young are not some magical critical period. These are the limited time, the need to support yourself financially, the potentially decreased focus in adulthood due to so many other things to worry about, the difficulty of sustaining motivation and commitment while you are spending your life on what may seem a science-fiction learning experiment.

This brings us to all the other obstacles, as mundane as they may be!

Obstacle #2: lack of time

This applies to adult learners who need to have a job, or perhaps a job and a family. This also applies to children and teenagers who need to spend significant time and effort helping their family with household chores, looking after their siblings; perhaps a sick relative is in need of care, or the family is not doing well financially, so every kid is selling cookies or has a lemonade stand, or anything to make the ends meet. How do you find time to practice a skill, when there is no immediate payoff?

Had I told you the world is not fair? Well, sometimes you can’t find this time. The “real world” then crushes your dreams, and you move on to something else. I have met a few of those, including an aspiring trumpet player turned physicist. He told me at a campus pizza place that to that day — his hair was thoroughly grey when we spoke — when he saw an orchestra perform, he was thinking: “this guy in the orchestra, it could have been me!” If that thought is not painful, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps the deck was stacked against him when he was 10 or 15, but what was the exact obstacle when he was 35? He was living, a white man in a free country, and getting a decent paycheck from a university. In case you don’t know, universities are open-minded when it comes to their faculty’s schedules, it’s nothing like 9-5, so it is very possible to accommodate some trumpet practice and rehearsal time. In case you don’t know, the commute in a small college town is unlikely to take more than 30 minutes. If he wanted to build his later life around playing trumpet, as a university professor he had that time and flexibility. By the time of our conversation, I don’t know about being the #99 player in the world, but he could’ve definitely made it to play in a band, say, from age 60 to 70. If you have ever made a contribution to a 401(k) retirement fund, if you ever thought it was a good idea, now you can make an alternative choice: that same time you are spending to save extra money for retirement can be channeled to become a pro trumpet player by age 60, and then that is your retirement!

So then, what do you do? As I’ve learned from Brian Tracy, time management is about choices. In order to “find time” — as if it was hiding from you — you have to choose your priority. Hold on, I understand that there is a 9-6 job, a 2-hour commute, and a bunch of other things that don’t really live much time to even choose how to spend. Let’s get to some specific numbers.

Could you find 5-10 hours per week to practice your skill, consistently, year after year? Assuming that your life depended on it — because it does? If you cannot, there is a bigger problem. Are you spending most of your time to make a living, with little to no spare time or money? Then focus on increasing your spare time and on making more money first. It will require new skills, but focus on those money-making skills first. You need a mature approach to strategy: don’t settle, don’t give up on your dreams, but do be strategic. If you are a 25-year old with 1 free hour per week, make yourself a 30-year old with 20 free hours per week, then talk to me about learning trumpet, math, or ballet.

Look, that is a hard question, and there is no one-fits-all answer. For a personal example, my grandfather, a Soviet dissident, was in jail for opposing the government from age 29 to 36. Then he had to spent 3 years in a remote town, this time together with his wife and my mother. After that, they were still legally prohibited from living in a big city or within 100 kilometers (!) of a big city. Considering that my grandfather had to support his wife, my grandfather — who had waited for him for all those years — as well as a daughter, that did not leave him that much time for practicing stuff. He did not have a legal option to move to a place with more opportunities, nor to leave the country. He did have 5-10 hours to spare per week, however, so he kept his studies. While never achieving world or national fame, he has produced some interesting work spanning mythology, sociology, political science, that was published and undoubtedly enriched his life a great deal. He had been an intellectual influence on hundreds or thousands of talented people, myself included.

If your environment is a bit more favorable, you are in luck! Especially if your only commitment is a 9-5 or a 9-6 job, Monday — Friday, you are otherwise single and free, and a legal resident of the country (=not tied to a job), great! Then not having time is not really an obstacle, your attitude is. Then you could be spending 20 hours every week on learning a skill, and will have some to spare!

When are you going to watch your favorite TV show? Rarely or never.

When are you going to play your favorite compute game? Rarely or never.

When are you going to have fun? Well, learning is fun!

Remember, if you did not start early like Magnus Carlsen, you still have to pay the price now. Magnus Carlsen was not watching Netflix when he was five, so you should not be doing it now.

If you are not so lucky, perhaps your job is 9-9 or you are not single, a good strategy is to convert money into time.

  • Try to find work where you are paid based on results, not by the hour. Then you can keep increasing the amount you get accomplished in one hour, effectively freeing up time.
  • Move to another apartment to shorten your commute; a 10-15 minute walking distance is wonderful!
  • Outsource everything. Experiment with outsourcing laundry, repairs, grocery shopping.
  • Use taxis when appropriate.
  • Experiment with paying for expertise. Pay for more things.
  • Pay for techniques to speed things up. Hire a home organizer.
  • Pay for better food, cleaner air, anything that helps you feel better. It does not add time, but allows you to make better use of it.
  • Pay for advise to make better decisions. Poor decisions will cost you time (and money).
  • Pay for faster learning. Pay for classes. Pay for better instruction. Pay for private instruction. Pay for anything that gives you an edge. This will save you years.

Paying for better instruction is huge, and we will get back to it.

Invest any windfall chunks of time into your learning. A 3-day weekend? Practice hard for 3 days in a row or go to an out-of-town immersion. If you are changing jobs, try to leave time between the jobs, a few weeks or a few months. Use it to learn. If you are not yet set on pursuing a particular skillset, an epic experience such as a trip around-the-globe counts as learning, and simply telling the story will open doors for you for the rest of your life. If you are set on a particular skillset, try practicing it 9-5 while in between jobs. There are summer intensive courses and camps for adult beginner learners in just about every area; go to one of those.

Study time management, and see what you can do to have more time or to use time more effectively. This is not a quick fix, but rather a life-long study. However, it pays off handsomely. Time management is one of the most valuable skills to study. It is universal, it is useful in every domain and circumstance, from now and until the day you die. Better yet, it cannot become an addiction: if you read too many books on time management, those books will eventually talk you into taking action!

Obstacle #3: lack of attention

As you grow older, you get distracted more easily, because there are more things to think about. Random things remind you about random past experiences, and the more past experiences you have had, the more there is to be reminded of. Distractions aside, you also get more responsibilities, from paying bills to helping a friend in need to dealing with unexpected health issues.

It is essential that you protect your focus. Study how to do it, and get good at it. Research and practice meditation. You don’t have to do it, but if you struggle with attention, give it a try. A good rule of thumb is, you should be able to go through a typical 1-hour class or practice session with zero unrelated thoughts. By “unrelated thoughts” I mean

  • thinking about something you will do later that day;
  • thinking about something you will do tomorrow;
  • thinking about something you did yesterday.

This is not the same for all fields; if your practice is writing a blog post, which is what I am doing at the moment, it may involve thinking about yesterday. However, if you are analyzing a chess position, this is what you should be focused on. If you are practicing trumpet, this is what you should be focused on. If you are practicing sales, be focused on making a sale.

If you are getting distracted every 5 minutes, this is too often. How do you expect to learn, if your mind is elsewhere? If you waste half of the time daydreaming, whom are you tricking? The 10,000 hours on the way to mastery suddenly become 20,000!

Distraction is a tremendous obstacle, so take it seriously. Read books about it, discuss it with friends. Definitely give meditation a try. You have thousands of hours of focused attention ahead of you; learn how to make the most of them!

Obstacle #4: lack of a roadmap

The lucky ones who make it “into the system” early in life just have to follow the script. That is, if you are 8 years old and you supposedly have musical talent, you can be accepted into a competitive music academy. If you then progress through the years and do everything as you are told, after enough time and effort (blood, sweat, and tears), you may just emerge victorious as a new star.

This in no way diminishes the journey because, as discussed, you still have to walk it, no matter your starting point. It makes no sense diminishing what you are going to go! The real problem of being outside the system is an unusual and little-discussed obstacle: I am ready to put in the work, but which way do I go?

This happens when a skill is taught in closed institutions for the “gifted and talented” — music academies, ballet schools, mathematical circles. The difficulty of entry varies; but what do you do if they won’t accept anyone of your age? Even if they would, you may not be able to attend full-time; what is your learning plan then? Worse, how do you learn if you aren’t even at the entry skill level?

This is the problem with the lack of a roadmap: you are willing to pay the price, but you don’t know, where or how to pay it. It is unclear, who can help you; nobody may know for sure, how to get where you are to where you want to be, some may even say it is impossible. This challenge is just as real as the other ones. Putting effort in the wrong direction can be disastrous to your progress (though may make you a wiser teacher someday).

A very productive mindset is to keep asking, how do people learn it? If they go through a structured training program that you can’t get into, find, keep inquiring, why do they learn so much in that training program? Try to understand it, so you can replicate it for yourself.:

  • If it is access to superior training methods, you can replicate it for yourself by paying for superior instruction;
  • If it is a different daily regimen, you can replicate it for yourself, adding leverage and external responsibility as needed;
  • If it is a different self-image, you can replicate it for yourself through imagery and hypnosis.

Absolutely any process or experience can be broken down into pieces, analyzed, and reconstructed.

Most importantly, ask for roadmaps. Identify what you need to learn, then ask for advice; people love giving it! Many answers you will receive are crappy roadmaps that lead nowhere; this risk is hard to eliminate. Over time you will develop an instinct, which advice is good and which is not. If you are already good at something, you can use it to fine-tune your instincts. See what advice people are giving out, and how some advice is good, and some is not so much? It is not about who is a nice person, who is friendly, or who is strict.

Look for sources of feedback. Anything with objective measurements: competitions, grades, a mirror you can look into. As often as possible put yourself in a situation where you can get feedback and learn. A competitive chess game is a great source of feedback, because you either win or lose. As you acquire more feedback, you will begin to see patterns, what is helpful for winning more chess games and what is not. Then you will begin to see patterns in the training advice and roadmaps you are offered: somebody says X, but it flatly contradicts your experience Y. It will begin to click: this person’s advice is not good, I know from experience it is not working — and suddenly a whole world opens up: all those hundreds of people giving this kind of advice are wrong.

Paradoxically, you also have to trust someone. Try to find teachers or mentors whom you trust, because you need to spend your energy and attention learning, not evaluating the trustworthiness of the feedback you are receiving. If you cannot trust any human being, learn how to do it. You are not the only one who has been traumatized; millions have been, and many thousands have healed from it.

To Be Continued…

Obstacle #5: lack of access to quality instruction

Obstacle #6: financing your education

Obstacle #7: lack of access to learning opportunities

Obstacle #8: self-image and cultural limits

Obstacle #9: poor health and low stamina

Obstacle #10: lack of commitment