Malcolm Gladwell famously said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. I say that the first 100 are probably the hardest. Maybe even the first 10.

When I picked up the guitar in high school, I was frustrated at how slowly it took me to learn anything. The chords didn’t come naturally to me. My fingers hurt. I could barely fumble my way through a song. This was supposed to be an easy instrument (I told myself). Why was it so hard for me?

I ended up letting it go. At the time, I was in several other musical ensembles and taking lessons in a couple of other instruments. When there were so many other areas in which I was halfway competent, dropping the one I kind of sucked at wasn’t a big deal at the time. Over the next decade and a half, most of my other musical activities fell away as well, until I was left with singing in my car and ringing in my church’s handbell ensemble.

So how did I end up at the music store this morning buying new strings and picks?

I was at a concert this past weekend featuring some of my friends, thoroughly enjoying the music and yet feeling somehow wistful. I’d felt similarly the weekend before that when another friend had brought out his guitar at a retreat and we’d all gathered ‘round to sing along. There was appreciation and admiration – but underneath, there was also deep longing.

At this same retreat, I’d gotten to know another colleague who’d seemingly done a little bit of everything. Walking around Seattle together, our conversation was peppered with all the things he’d dabbled in: ceramics, jam-making, and wall-building, to name a few. He had no barrier between the thought, “That sounds like fun,” and trying it out.  All this while carrying on a successful therapy practice!

Talking to him, I realized how serious I’d gotten about my life. My coaching practice is extremely important to me, but I wasn’t allowing enough room for play. When I got burned out at work, I’d tend to find a different way to work rather than walk away altogether and let my creative energy regenerate. I felt guilty if I wasn’t spending all my free time writing, coaching, or coming up with new ways to connect with and help clients. As much as I love coaching, it was also becoming a source of resentment and frustration.

When I started coach training, my instructors were extremely familiar (and fondly exasperated) with that why-can’t-I-be-perfect now attitude. “Be willing to suck,” they kept saying. “It’s the only way you’re going to learn. Get out there and fall down and flail around and embarrass yourself. Just go ahead and get it over with.”

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I was so used to having to look competent, confident, and in control that I’d forgotten how much freedom there is in just jumping in the pool and splashing around. It was so, so hard for me to internalize, but the passion and enthusiasm inherent in that attitude carried me through where the “you’d better get this right, dammit” energy left me drained and unmotivated.

All these events and thoughts were percolating in my mind as I listened to my friends perform on Friday night. And then it hit me: Being good is not the point. I’m still young, and if I want to tell myself it’s too late for me to learn, it’s my own damn fault if I spend the next 60 years of my life feeling wistful that I don’t know how to play the guitar. It might take 10,000 hours to be amazing, but it starts with the decision to sit down with the thing and be willing to suck for awhile.

And that’s how I found myself buying a new “E” string and some picks this morning. My fingertips hurt after ten minutes, my hand is sore from stretching it into new and unfamiliar shapes, and I still have to look up the fingerings for every single chord – but I’m having fun, and I’m showing up, which Woody Allen and my mom remind me is 80% of success. (And thanks to K, H, and the Js for being an inspiration for me these past few weeks!)

What does your heart yearn to learn?

What would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly?

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, to discover what is already there.”

– Henry Miller, Sexus


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