In the first and second parts of the series we have discussed seven obstacles to skill mastery:

  • not having started early enough,
  • lack of time to practice,
  • lack of attention,
  • lack of a roadmap,
  • lack of access to quality instruction,
  • difficulty financing your education, and
  • lack of access to learning opportunities other than instruction.

Once you have dealt with all those, you have a chance, however slim. You still have to pay the price of mastery, as with any kind of success. Even those who have it relatively easy still have to pay a high price; otherwise it would be called “average skill level”, not “mastery”.

Yet after you have reshaped your life to fit in enough practice time, after you have found the right teachers and the right learning opportunities, there is a whole other set of obstacles, which are various psychological barriers.

Obstacle #8: Wrong mindset, lack of confidence, incompatible self-image

If you have not been naturally “good at math”, trying to become a mathematician will feel like an uphill battle. You will waste enormous energy doubting yourself and debating whether and when to quit instead of engaging with mathematical problems and theorems. If you have not been a musically gifted child, trying to become a decent pianist can similarly feel hopeless. Even if you are putting in countless hours and people tell you you are making progress, it will likely not feel that way. You may feel like a monkey behind an instrument, or an impostor trying to fake it and being somebody other than being what you are. Perhaps even both at the same time, a monkey-impostor!

At best, the feeling may be that you need to “find confidence” or “fake confidence” or “be confident” in order to demonstrate skill, and the more you think about it, the less confident and more confused you will become, guaranteed.

Those feelings are called “doubt”, and doubt is perfectly normal. It becomes unproductive if it makes you quit too early. It is outright dangerous to your success if you allow it to blossom when you are not quitting. Poetically speaking, it can divert energy from your efforts, making them half-hearted. Then indeed you will not be making much progress, and will be thus even more inclined to quit, arguing that you just do not have what it takes.

The single best thing you can do is to not think doubtful thoughts on a daily basis. It is fine to have a regular self-check a few times a year to ensure you are on the right track. Even better, talk it over with a teacher or mentor, but do not allow yourself to think about quitting on a daily or even weekly basis, and do not ask yourself too often if you “will make it” or not, especially when you are practicing the skill. When you are practicing piano, you should be focused on the notes, the sound, the instrument, not on where you can get in a few years. When you are practicing martial art, you have to be focused on your body and your opponent’s, not on whether you can make it to a particular belt or a particular stage of a competition. In fact, you should practice to have no unrelated thoughts at all; it is entirely possible to have a 1-hour training session (drawing, cooking, fighting, horse riding session) with nearly zero unrelated thoughts, though this will not happen every single time you practice or perform your skill. This level of attention is an essential practice for any skill.

Even when you deliberately take the time to reflect on your progress, remember to manage your expectations. If in doubt, attribute your poor performance to lack of sufficient experience, not lack of natural talent or ability. For example, if someone with a Ph.D. in Astronomy or Geography were to take a 12-week data science bootcamp, would they suddenly become a competent programmer or a competent data scientist? Of course not, not even if they worked 24/7 during those 12 weeks, and not even if they were very good at Astronomy or Geography, respectively.And if they entered this bootcamp with a B.Sc. in Marketing, they will be awful. They will lack the most elementary intuition and will make mind-blowing mistakes, those that many good programmers will have made by age 12. This is normal: different people start at different levels. Starting at a low level does not mean that you don’t have what it takes; it does mean that you need more time and a lot more perseverance.

Contrary to popular belief, it does not matter why you don’t quit. You may be learning math or a sport and feel you are not cut for it. It may feel completely demotivating. You may have the mindset of an underachiever; you may think you are dumb and lack even a trace of talent. So long as you keep trying to learn, even if you are forced to, you are but guaranteed to succeed.

The only chilling exception I had heard of was a medical case described by the Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria in his book “A man with a shattered world”. Lev Zasetsky, survivor of a horrific brain injury in 1943, subsequently spent decades — and tens of thousands of hours — trying to restore basic cognitive abilities, such as the ability to read, simple math, ability to navigate a few blocks in a small town. Despite perseverance and a very modest progress, he has essentially failed as the injury proved too devastating, and the human capacity for recovery limited. However, this demonstrates the perfect attitude to learning: Zasetsky did not have confidence or a “winner’s mindset”, yet kept trying year after year, and decade after decade.

It cannot be stressed enough that you should not feel or expect confidence on a daily basis. It is good when it comes, but it is by no means a prerequisite; and if experienced too often, is likely to indicate stagnation in a newfound comfort zone. Consider that mastery is always a results of prolonged deliberate practice, which includes, among other things, countless little failures as one’s boundaries are stretched, and the level of performance is thus increased. If we can agree on this doctrine, then a master is someone who fails daily or at least has failed daily over a long period of time; what confidence are we talking about?! You cannot fail with a feeling of confidence, that much I can guarantee. If you want to keep growing over a long enough period of time, you have to give up the need of feeling confident — and comfortable; it is a bit like never feeling secure or at home.

Obstacle #9: Poor health and low stamina

Did I say life was not fair? Other people may think they are fighting against all odds, yet they have it so much easier! You may know an aspiring actor picking up 12-hour shifts as a waiter or an aspiring entrepreneur working 16 hours a day, eating noodles and cheerfully saying, “No complains!” Then if you don’t work 12 or 16 hours a day on something — they conclude — you “don’t have what it takes”. But what if your health is not strong enough to handle this kind of lifestyle? You may have tried to persevere, only to find out that your body cannot handle the marathon.

First of all, make sure you are not lying to yourself. If you are simply tired on a regular basis, you may be doing everything right, particularly if you are learning a physical skill such as a martial art or tennis. Some people are not used to working hard and may have to get used to it. Others, and that is more common, only work hard at their jobs, but give surprisingly little effort when doing something for themselves.

Second, health and stamina are finite for everyone and have to be used and managed strategically, not unlike time and money. This is a deep and complex topic that has to be studied on an ongoing basis, much like organizing your apartment is something you keep getting better at: today you install new shelves in the kitchen, tomorrow you get a new rug for the living room, next month you can try rearranging the furniture. If the journal rack is not working out, you get a new one or choose to unsubscribe from the journals altogether. Similarly, your health and energy levels are topics worth thinking about; these topics are worth discussing with others, you can read books, listen to audio programs, experiment on your own. Most importantly, do not just throw you arms into the air that the world is just unfair and you can’t work 16 hours a day because of poor genes; keep looking for solutions.

Obviously, try to find a good doctor and see them at least annually. If you have any chronic condition or anything recurring, be sure to learn about it and get a second and a third opinion. If you are taking medication on a regular basis, try several drugs. If you are wearing contact lenses, try several brands. Learn to recognize when you aren’t feeling well due to not eating enough, if you have a thin constitution. Food, both abundant and diverse, is essential particularly if you are engaged in intense practice session on a regular basis, be it piano, chess or tennis. Learn to recognize, when you aren’t feeling well due to exhaustion, that is, when you just need to go and get another 10-15 hours of sleep. When it happens, one solution is to cancel all appointments, stay home and just sleep. Tell everyone you are sick with a cold or a flu — as you will probably get one if you stay exhausted.

Some health conditions are serious obstacles in their own right. When dealing with one, it is even more important that you take a pragmatic approach and calmly and systematically look for solutions to the problem. Do not just suffer, and do not just accept limits on your skill level and overall achievement due to your poor health, genetic disease, or injury. There are many different techniques, exercise systems and healing modalities that, when practiced diligently, can create miracles over time. There are healthier locations where you can move, climates that are hotter or colder, that are more or less humid; there are (still) locations with cleaner air and cleaner water, locations with easier and cheaper access to healthcare or alternative therapies, better food, shorter commutes. There are all kinds of drugs and medical procedures that can also create little miracles.  What matters is your mindset: set better health, better energy levels as a goal, and work on it the way you would work on any other goals. It may be quite a detour whereas you take a few years to improve your health, then more years on top of that to capitalize on that improved health and become a better martial artist, tennis player, trumpeter or entrepreneur.

It is also important to realize that while poor health decreases skill performs, you can still be making progress. That is, even if you are constantly unwell or constantly feeling sick, so long as you keep practicing martial arts, tennis, or trumpet, two years from now you will be much better than today. In fact, your performance on your absolute worst day a few years from now is likely to be better than your performance on your absolute best day today. That is, whether feeling well or feeling unwell, just keep doing your best and do not explain too many of your failures by poor health; lack of skill is likely the reason. If you take a trained ballerina who is sick with a flu, she may still be able to drag herself to a studio and do some clean triple pirouette on pointe; training is that powerful. Consider this: when coming down with a virus, do you cease to understand English? If you haven’t slept for 48 hours, will you still able to sign your name or brush your teeth? I bet you would, and you would be equally able to perform any other skill that has been ingrained deeply enough.

Sometimes you can actually make breakthrough progress when practicing in an unwell or outright sick state. It is a bit like doing sit-ups while holding a heavy weight: it is harder, but once you adjust to it, you become able to do so much more without the weight. A more subtle reason is that feeling unwell can create an altered state of consciousness, interfere with habitual, “autopilot” responses, and help discover a new and better perspective. While you should absolutely take care of your body and your health, do not automatically assume that “feeling unwell” or “being sick” equals poor performance. We all have different standards for “feeling unwell”, and mastering any skill, or any extraordinary success, requires willingness to question those boundaries, while simultaneously respecting them.


Obstacle #10: Lack of perseverance

In a way, this one is the ultimate obstacle, because if someone keeps persevering, we would not call them a failure but a success that has not happened yet. It was tempting to call it “lack of commitment”, but commitment is something that can only be ascertained after that fact. If someone quits in the middle, we conclude that they were not committed. Whoever does not quit is assumed to have been committed enough to persevere, yet the real daily struggle is to simply find the willpower to keep going, to resume after stopping, to try yet once again. It is also important to keep pushing the boundaries. If you had practiced for 5 years but stopped, well, start again. If you had practiced on a daily basis but slipped to once a week, you can always increase the frequency until it is back to where it was. If you used to push yourself during every practice but now are just going through the motions — well, work up to pushing yourself once again.

Perseverance adds up from countless little choices, much like your childhood was comprised of countless days. Those little choices are by no means automatic, and even when they do become habitual, those good habits still require a degree of maintenance. Most good habits are forgotten and rediscovered many times throughout life. If you manage to lock-in a habit such a daily goal, good for you; but constantly restarting a habit can work as well. Just as some people need many attempts to quit smoking, a single desirable habit may take many attempts over several years to truly lock in.

Every once in a while, ask yourself: how can I make more progress? Then go do something about it: book another private lesson, enter another competition, apply for another job, ask another person for advice. It helps to have a mentor, or a support group or an accountability partner, so that you can have regular discussions about your learning trajectory, and so you can keep tweaking your approach. As you see from this series on obstacles to mastery, there is a lot to figure out, so there is a lot to try and experiment with, and then you have to learn from all this experience, make conclusions, and try some more. Learning is a long process; any serious learning involves a lot of wandering in the darkness, even if the subject has been well studied by others.

How can you be more persevering, and when does it make sense to give up? Those are also questions worthy of a lifelong exploration. Talk to others about it; talk to your teachers and to those whose skill you admire. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos. Ultimately you will have to discover it for yourself. As Herman Hesse wrote in his book Siddhartha,

Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish…