In the first part of this series we have discussed the first four obstacles to skill mastery:

  • not having started early enough,
  • lack of time to practice,
  • lack of attention, and
  • lack of a roadmap.

As you may have noticed, I am trying to take the old adage of “you can learn — more generally, achieve — anything that you set your mind on” and analyze it from a practical perspective.

The only real challenge when learning a skill is the challenge of learning quickly enough; the only enemy is the passage of time. Given a decent environment and enough time, almost anyone could become an expert at anything, if only an expert by today’s standards. Most people moving to a new country eventually become fluent in that country’s language. Here environment is just as essential for the progress as is time; mastering a language without moving to a country in which it is spoken may never happen.

Hence the well-known focus on starting learning a skill early in life, for it allows both plenty of time and, often, a more welcoming environment. The benefits of a child’s learning environment, at least in a developed world, are twofold: large amounts of free time that would otherwise be consumed by work and other adult responsibilities and greater opportunities given to children due to their supposedly greater promise. Note that while school can also claim a large amount of one’s time, school activities can be partially sacrificed in favor of extracurricular pursuits such as science competitions, music, or “entrepreneurship” a.k.a. having a lemonade stand; work and other adult responsibilities tend to be less amenable to being sacrificed in a similar fashion.

This type of an obstacle is more “external”; it is (lack of) access to opportunities to learn. When people talk about “facing reality”, “being realistic”, they have precisely such obstacles in mind .These “external” obstacles do not have to arise from starting late in life; growing up in a disadvantaged community or plainly in poverty can be a reason. Let us now look at those obstacles one by one.

Obstacle #5: lack of access to quality instruction

When learning a skill, you need guidance. Teachers, coaches, and mentors exist for a reason, and so do books, audio and video courses, schools, academies and universities. After all, a skill is something that has been discovered before and given a particular name.

With some exceptions, it is not possible to rediscover a skill without first formally studying prior developments, at least not to the degree of outperforming those who did go through such a study. You can certainly figure out how to play a piano just by trying, but will you be able to play Chopin with the same fluency as those who went through years of carefully designed exercises? Will you be able to reinvent those exercises on the fly, exercises that were often created by masters with decades of experience?

There are notable exceptions of people who had attained a high degree of skill with little formal training. F.M.Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique named after him, did not set up to learn “The Alexander Technique”, as no such thing had existed. He was, however, interested in becoming a Shakespearian actor, so he used to take drama lessons, so we can speculate whether the theatre training led him to those ideas. Isadora Duncan, a celebrated dancer and nonconformist socialite, started learning to dance by… teaching other children, what came to her mind. However consider that, first, she did start at an early age and had devoted disproportionate amounts of time and effort to dance and performance arts in general. Second, there exists little doubt that, in relative terms, her technique was not that great. Her dances are technically far easier than the classical repertoire such as the Swan Lake or the Sleeping Beauty. Fortunately, in dance technique is not the only standard, while beauty is often stifled by formal schooling. Legendary Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan made astonishing discoveries and has left contributions to several branches of mathematics, despite having received virtually no formal training or guidance in his research; this last example appears an outright exception.

Yet there is no contradiction. These and other individuals have faced the exact same obstacle, and have managed to succeed in spite of the odds; this does not mean that the obstacle was not there. Their example suggests one strategy: if you lack access to quality instruction, redouble your efforts. Nevertheless, get the best training that you can get. It is tempting to argue that geniuses would we better off without mediocre schooling. Isadora herself despised traditional dance training for its rigidity, but compare her to Martha Graham, another pioneer of modern dance. Martha has left a far more impressive legacy — and she did receive a fair amount of training at the Denishawn school. F.M.Alexander did attempt to get the best voice and theatre training available in his time; the field of inquiry of the Alexander Technique had not been recognized yet, so there was no prior art for him to study. Ramanujan — it has been speculated — could have become one of the greatest mathematicians ever lived, with better training and better treatment from a disease he has succumbed to. All three people have not succeeded because of being on their own, but despite being on their own.

Obstacle #6: financing your education

The word education should be understood broadly. Learning a skill is best undertaken by building up on previous discoveries, “standing on the shoulders of giants”, if you wish, and even if you are lucky to have access to quality information and instruction, this access is rarely free. Group classes, private instruction, even self-study may still require a significant investment.

When it comes to learning, money is used in two ways: to buy knowledge and to buy time. Buying knowledge is concerned with, first and foremost, paying for instruction. Some of us also need equipment such as a grand piano or a new scuba diving suit. Buying time can be accomplished by working less and outsourcing routine tasks.

Note that even if your skill is what you already do for a living, the actual “work” tends to be what you are already competent at, while further improvement requires additional chunks of time and money. Even if you are a musician in an orchestra, the music you are playing is chosen for artistic reasons, not to push you to a new level, while the purpose of rehearsals is to make things work smoothly, once again, not to push you to a new level. Certain careers such as research or professional sports do require improving your skill day-to-day as a part of the deal: you cannot be a university professor paid for research if you are not researching something new. That is, however, uncommon; for most people either the skill you are learning is not what you do for a living, at least not yet, or the daily practice of the skill is mundane and without a deliberate effort you will probably stay at the same level for the next 10 years, or until you get replaced by younger competitors who are hungrier, cheaper, and who will soon be more skilled than you currently are.

So let’s take one thing at a time: buying knowledge. If at all possible, you should consider doing that! If you are one of those people with a large retirement account a.k.a. 401(k), if you think it’s a good idea to save $100 every month or every week and wait for a few decades, consider instead spending it on a private lesson, if only to get better at what you currently do for a living. $100 can buy you a private 1-hour lesson from a competent teacher in most fields, in most cities; of course, feel free to adjust to your local prices. Done properly, this investment can bear greater fruit, and much sooner, and barring a brain injury, the benefit is permanent. Even if the skill does not bring you income, say, if you take private lessons in vinyasa yoga, in the long-term it will still save you thousands on health bills, it will save you thousands of hours due to improved self-control and sharper mind, and it may indirectly lead to other ways of making money. It will help you connect with people by making you more interesting, giving you yet another thing to talk about. In summary, if you already have money that you are saving and investing, invest some of it in your continued education. Beware of big-ticket items unless you can afford it or you are convinced of the value: $10k can be spent on the annual tuition for a low-cost online degree, a couple expensive conferences, or 100 hours of private work with a good teacher or mentor charging $100/hour. It can also be spent on 500 group classes at $20/hour.

It is important that you take your learning expenses seriously and do not consider them “optional” or “discretionary”. If you cannot find the funds, there are many creative solutions such as work-study arrangements in exchange for free classes or mentorship. At a minimum, make your situation known: people will sometimes help you if they know what you are looking for. The only solution you should avoid is saving money first in order to spend it on learning later. If it all possible, learn first, because every day of practicing enriches the rest of your life and exposes you to greater future opportunities. Otherwise, “some time later” may easily become “never”.

Sometimes taking a loan is a viable strategy, but be responsible! At the very least, be strategic and plan ahead. In all honesty, I personally have not been particularly responsible in this area: in the last 7 years, I have never hesitated to buy knowledge on credit. If a class or a private lesson is worth it, I would typically just put it on a credit card, figuring that eventually all this learning will transform me so much that I will find a way to repay the debt. Fortunately, it has been working out for me, but it may not necessarily work for you.

The second use of financing is to buy time. Serious learning requires large chunks of time. It also requires some serious rest. How are you going to become a great piano player if you have to flip burgers 6 days a week, from 9am-9pm? Even if you write code while sitting in a comfortable chair 9am-9pm, this can leave you equally exhausted, and with little discretionary time, short of sacrificing your scarce sleep hours.

However, chunks of time can be bought. Commute can be minimized by living in the area where you work or, conversely, working in the area where you live. Do not underestimate even an addition 30 minutes per weekday; those can make a big difference. Outsourcing mundane and exhausting tasks such as laundry, having meals delivered to you, commuting on a taxi — all of those can save you time and energy, which can then be employed towards practicing your target skill. Working shorter hours for a reduced salary is another form of “buying time”. You may need a multi-step strategy whereas you first improve your command of the activity that you do for a living. Then as your skill improves, you can spend fewer hours per week making a living and more hours per week getting better at this and other skills. Therefore, if you spend most of your time making a living, this should be your target skill: as discussed, you can’t become a great piano player if you are flipping burgers 70 hours/week. It is painful, demotivating, but rational to start by becoming a better burger-flipper. Overall, always be acutely sensitive to the way you are spending your time and keep looking for optimizations. While financial frugality has its downsides, there are no downsides to temporal frugality. In order to achieve mastery you need to pay for it generously with your time, and for that you need all the time you can find.

Obstacle #7: lack of access to learning opportunities

This one is different from access to teachers and information.

A lot of learning happens “on the job”; paradoxically, prior experience is often also the prerequisite to “getting the job”. You need managerial experience to land a job as a manager, yet how are you supposed to get this experience in the first place? You want to play the lead role in a play, yet you don’t have the skills — naturally, because you have never been chosen for the lead role in the past! You want a job as a data scientist, yet everyone demands “real-world” experience; how are you supposed to get it, unless somebody first gave you a chance?

Let us summarize the conspiracy: the chosen few are exposed to opportunities. They get cast as child actors or are picked to represent the country in an international math competition, or perhaps their multimillionaire parents mentor them in the art of business deals. Later they enter top schools and are given lead roles, prime opportunities, and more high-quality training. The most painful part of the conspiracy is that technically speaking, the selection is done on the basis of merit. However, the game is not played on an even field, and never will. So long as the institute of family is preserved, any society will become unfair after one generation, as those who have succeeded on the basis of hard work alone will seek to provide an additional advantage for their offspring.

Whatever the reason, whether it is “natural talent” — if such a thing exists — family connections, an earlier start, greater financial resources, or all four combined, some people will get learning opportunities that others will not, and yes, it has a great effect on one’s learning curve and, consequently, on future learning opportunities. Not having the listed advantages and not getting access to those opportunities is therefore an obstacle worthy of consideration. What steps can one take to mitigate the disadvantages?

One strategy is to ask to be included or ask, what you can do to be included. That is, if there is a school you really want to attend or a person you desperately want to study with, and you are willing to work very hard and make great sacrifices, make it known. The strategy is twofold: be an exemplary student and offer additional value, monetary or otherwise. Most importantly, be prepared to back up your words with actions. In order to receive great instruction, whether you are paying for it or not, you have to deserve it. This is doubly important if you want access to traditionally exclusive high-quality training: if given a chance, stay humble, write every little thing down, and work harder than anybody else.

Another strategy is to fully explore what is available. You may not be able to join an elite math or tennis school, but is there another school of comparable quality that will accept you? What if you were to move to another city or another country, would there be an opportunity? You can also look for loosely similar opportunities. If you are after exceptional math education and you get an opportunity to learn cutting-edge physics or computer science, those may be worth considering. If you want to become a figure skating pro, elite schools may be closed for you if you have not started young. However, acrobatic schools openly accept adults even at an advanced level; you can then go back to figure skating with an acrobatic background. A multi-year detour like this one is not to be taken likely, but it is nevertheless a possibility. Managerial positions require people skills; if you cannot get one due to lack of the said skills, is there any chance you could get a position in sales and acquire the skills while in it?

Moving to a small town is an idea that I have already mentioned. Smaller places often have worse training, but better overall opportunities. The Beatles built their reputation playing in Liverpool and Hamburg. Aside from reputation, they have also built their skills. More generally, you can get opportunities if you move to an imperfect environment. Look for new teachers, new projects, new companies. When George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein first started the School of American Ballet, they just recruited a bunch of random adults. Over the years SAB switched to training since childhood and became increasingly selective, but their early students undoubtedly got an opportunity of a lifetime.

Spotting an opportunity such as this one is a matter of social skills and active networking. Therefore getting to know people already in the field is always a great idea in itself. The world is not perfect, and opportunities are distributed not just based on the skill level alone. Seek to become friends with those in your chosen field. There are many indirect ways of going about it, such as volunteering. If you want to be a great chess player, volunteer to distribute flyers or set tables at a chess event and use it to get to know people there. This is an extremely long-term strategy with no immediate payoffs in sight, but you do not have to spend all your energy on it, and frankly, a single connection can open doors for you that would otherwise take years of additional effort with a more straightforward approach. For example, if a great pianist coming to your city and you have a share connection or another way to reach out to them, you can host them at your place for weeks or months at a time in exchange for lessons. If the lessons go well, eventually it may become a regular arrangement — obviously, for a fee.

That brings us to another option: money. If you have ample financial resources, you can pay for high-quality instruction. At a certain price tag there is virtually no limit as to what you can get. If you can afford to start your own music academy or chess school and hire international stars or grand masters, you can definitely then be accepted as a student into your own academy. This solution may sound ridiculous, but it is a legitimate solution, and it does happen. More generally, if you can provide other kinds of value, a lot more doors will open to you. In reality there is no conspiracy: top chess schools, top music schools, and top circus schools are not excluding you out of viciousness, but simply because they want tangible results in the form of exceptional students, with some certainty, and within a certain timeframe; otherwise they are wasting time and resources, and generally not fulfilling their purpose. For an individual teacher there is a similar opportunity cost. But almost every person and almost every institution has something that they really need or want, monetary or otherwise, and if you can provide this, exceptions can be made.

However, if you want an exception to be made, you need an answer as to why you deserve an exception, and “because I will give it all” is rarely sufficient, because few people do. Ultimately you need to make sure that you are working harder than those who do have the opportunities. This one is crucial. Perhaps you never had the opportunity to enter a proper music school where aspiring musicians are practicing 6 hours every day (as they are still teenagers and can devote that much time). Perhaps you are an adult and only have 2 hours every day that you can devote to practice due to work commitments. Do you then, in fact, practice those 2 hours daily, or do you limit yourself to 5 hours/week because you need “rest”?

In other words, whether the deck is stacked against you or for you, mastery is never easy. Everyone has it very hard. In fact, a common disadvantage of not having experienced a good learning environment is not working hard enough. A single homework program from a Math Ph.D. program may require 5 or 10 hours of thinking; have you ever spent 5 hours on a math problem? A page of music may require hours of work to carefully go through each measure and break it down, every note, every articulation mark, every ornament. A particular move in martial arts may require hours of mental rehearsal to being to understand its dynamics. Obstacles can be overcome, but the journey may not be for the weak of heart. Understand what you are getting yourself into and consider it normal.