I suck at playing guitar.
I’m not saying it because I want the “Oh no, I’m sure you’re not that bad” platitudes. I’m not saying it so people feel sorry for me. And I’m not saying it to sandbag anyone, that is, saying I suck and am really awesome at it (which is a big pet peeve of mine BTW—sandbagging).
When I say I suck at something, I genuinely meant it. And I proudly claim it.
I’ve always loved music. I grew up in a music-loving household. I constantly listen to music, I sing along to just about any song (I’m a so-so singer, honest assessment), and I always wanted to play an instrument. Not just play it, play it really well, like be an expert guitar player or genius pianist or supremely rhythmic drummer.
Years ago I decided that instead of wishing and hoping, I would try my hand at guitar. I took lessons at one of the best music schools in my city.
At first, I loved the lessons. I was in a group class, and each week we learned new chords. We practiced popular songs using those chords.
Every week after the class, all the classes came together to jam. I loved the feeling of camaraderie as we all played along to one song, everyone at different levels of ability. I usually would chime in on the one chord I learned that day. Didn’t matter—I was playing.
Just one small problem.
I made zero progress as time went on. I was terrible. I did not get any better than when I started. I couldn’t play guitar worth a damn.
I got frustrated. Where was the magic I thought would happen once I picked up a guitar? Guitar was going to be my God-given talent that I’d been searching for my whole life. Clearly, playing the guitar wasn’t it. My dreams of becoming a music savant and rock star vanished.
I quit before our class term was over, missing our graduation performance.
I pouted and moaned, “I suck at guitar. I’ll never be able to play an instrument.” And with that attitude, I wouldn’t. But had I really tried? No, not really. I gave up as soon I had an inkling of suckitude.
Malcolm Gladwell so famously described in his book Outliers the notion of the 10,000-hour rule. Simply put, the idea is that to achieve mastery of something requires 10,000 hours of practice. And not just 10,000 mindless hours—it’s 10,000 hours of hard work and meaningful practice.
Clearly, I hadn’t put in 10,000 hours let alone even 10 hours of practice before I gave up. About a year later after my first failed attempt at guitar, I decided to try again. Really try. I wasn’t sure about the 10,000 hours but I was going to give it my all.
And I did.
I practiced every day for a minimum of an hour. No matter how busy or tired I was, I didn’t go to bed until I practiced. I went to class early and practiced. I met up with some of my fellow classmates outside of class to practice. I went to every school jam and played. When we chose our song for graduation, I played it over and over. I recorded my guitar playing so I could hear how it sounded and make corrections. I practiced until my fingers bled—no joke—and then calluses formed.
And guess what?
I still sucked. I still didn’t improve. Maybe incrementally. And I was o.k. with it. I tried my best, I worked hard, and I wasn’t very good at playing guitar. I also realized that I didn’t actually love it. But on graduation day, there I was playing our class song, grinning like a goofball. I was never prouder or happier.
For the first time really, I actually worked hard at something (besides work). I pushed myself further than I thought I could go.
Sure, I didn’t do 10,000 hours but I worked hard, my practice was meaningful, and I tried something new. I found out that I didn’t actually like playing the guitar so I could let go of that wishing and hoping. I didn’t wonder “what if?” any more. And if I did like it, I would’ve kept going. I would’ve gone for those 10,000 hours.
Who knows? Maybe I would’ve gotten better. Maybe not. I’m perfectly content and happy to now simply listen to good music, sing along when I want, and enjoy other people playing, secure in the knowledge that I did my best.
(Photograph found here.)