This is a more subtle idea than it sounds, and one that I’ve found to be a key stumbling block for individuals and businesses seeking to perform at a high level.
To illustrate the point in a basic way, say you want to be a world-class pianist. Clearly, to reach that level, you will have to first pass through the stages of:
- Being a non-existent pianist
- Being a dreadful pianist
- Being a bad pianist
- Being an average pianist
- Being a decent pianist
- Being a good pianist
- Being an excellent pianist
- And finally, world-class
None of these stages can be skipped.
Because of this, to graduate from being a bad pianist to an average one, you will need to play a lot of bad piano. Indeed, you will probably need to enjoy playing bad piano, and you will also need to be motivated by the prospect of becoming merely average. Without taking joy in mediocrity, it is impossible to progress.
When it comes to something like learning an instrument, I think we all get this idea. However, we tend not to get it in other parts of life. For example:
- To have a newsletter with 100,000 subscribers, you first need to enjoy writing for nobody
- To become a movie star, you first need to enjoy acting in amateur plays
- To make a million dollars, you first need to be excited to earn $10
- To get your product listed in Tescos, you first need to aspire to the local independent shop
There are so many things like this where we love the idea of the destination but hate the idea of the journey.
I know that with many of my own aspirations, I have made the mistake of focusing on the end goal, and ignoring the small step in front of me. Of trying to jump directly from 1% (rank beginner) to 100% (world-class), rather than simply to 2%. Worst of all, when presented with a vision of what 2%, or 10%, or 25% looks like, I would reject it. “Ugh, why would I want that?”. A perfectly reasonably reaction. But if that’s your mentality then you may as well forget about that field completely. You must enjoy the journey with no promise of arriving at the “destination”.
I’m reminded of a guy I once knew who was passionate about becoming a successful recording artist. He would spend every waking hour writing songs, recording them, and sending demos to labels. What he wouldn’t do, however, was go and play in his local pub open mic. That wasn’t his goal and wasn’t of interest to him for its own sake, so he rejected it. He also didn’t hang out with the musicians on his local scene, offer to support slightly more successful musicians than himself, or do any of the other “low level” things that I assume people do when they inhabit that world. For him, it was the stars or bust. Be catapulted from nowhere to fame, or nothing at all.
Sufficed to say, despite years of effort, nowhere is where he’s remained.
Part of the reason we fall into this trap I think is because we all know what 100% looks like. Those are the examples we see in the media. We all know a lot about how Apple runs as a business, and so try to copy its habits in our own operations, without realising that this is totally illogical at our stage of development.
What we don’t know is what a 2% Apple looks like. Or a 2% Roger Federer, or a 2% Joe Rogan. If we did we’d have a much more effective model to aspire to… and chances are most of us would give up right than and there, because that 2% probably isn’t very inspiring.
Indeed, I’d go out on a limb and suggest that ambition and success are, to a degree, reverse correlated. It is the passionate who achieve great things, not those focused on the output.
In conclusion then, whatever we’re building towards, to become good at something, at some point we need to paint a very clear picture of the different steps it takes to get there. Then, we need to be honest with ourselves and ask whether we desire the intermediate steps, or just the destination. If the mediocre doesn’t appeal then recognise that the outstanding will always remain out of reach.
But if the journey sounds fun to you then you’re one of the lucky ones. Because your goal is simply the single small step that’s right in front of you.