If you were alive in the 80s, then you know The Karate Kid. Our hero, Daniel, moves across the country, doesn’t quite fit in with the new crowd, and after spending countless hours doing chores for the gardener—Wax on! Wax off! Paint the fence!—he wins the day.
My friends and I spent countless hours that summer knocking soda cans off of fences with awkward crane kicks. Occasionally, we managed to hit the can more than we hit the ground.
Daniel didn’t understand the importance of mastering wax on, wax off. He thought Miyagi was stalling or even a fraud. He felt the pressure of the deadline. He was scared. He wanted immediate results without paying the price.
In Outliers (Amazon, iBooks), Malcom Gladwell gives several examples of the 10,000-hour rule: it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to master a field. The specific number may vary from field to field, but the principle remains: it takes more than a few weeks of chores to become a black belt. (It certainly takes more than watching The Karate Kid to master the crane kick.)
Athletes spend more time drilling on the basics and training than they do playing. Daniel-san had his chores. Musicians have their études.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Say it with me: Practice, practice, practice.
When you’re training (what Gladwell calls “deliberate practice”), you are developing a habit. The neural pathways involved in the routine start coating themselves in myelin, becoming stronger and more resilient. Your brain is optimizing itself for the task. That’s a process that takes time and repetition. You can’t cheat it.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Principles and Practices
A principle is timeless. It captures both the desired outcome and the rules you will follow to produce that outcome. A practice is the steps you will take to get there. It’s a principle applied to a specific problem.
If you only learn practices, then you’re only learning how to solve a very limited set of problems. You’re cutting the ends off of the ham for the wrong reason.
We can learn principles quickly. Over time, we come to understand them more deeply. We see how things are connected, how cause leads to effect, and gain new insights. Gradually, we learn to think without our brains getting in the way.
Trust and Pride
When you’re building a house, where do you start? You start with the foundation. It’s boring and frustrating. You have the end in mind—a grand castle with stately rooms. Leveling the ground seems like the least interesting thing in the world, but you can’t skip ahead.
Daniel, an awkward teenager from New Jersey who didn’t know what karate was until it hit him upside the head, thought he knew more about how to teach karate than Mr. Miyagi. He wasn’t able to learn until he set aside his pride and trusted in his teacher.
There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. You have to start at the beginning. Build a strong foundation. Learn the fundamentals. Lasting growth happens line upon line, precept upon precept.
You will be an awkward beginner at first. We all were. It takes humility to stick with it—the humility to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing and accept that someone else knows more than you. Until then, there’s no way someone else can teach you.