Where Do Breakthroughs Come From?

I was eating dinner with a colleague not long ago, and as we were waiting for our meals to arrive, he surprised me by doing a quick magic trick that he had prepared. He took out a small, but ordinary looking coloring book he had with him, and flipped through it to show me that none of the pictures had been colored in. Then, he closed the book, placed it on the table, and asked me to magically “color” the pages by touching various objects on the table, and tapping my finger on the cover to add these colors to the pictures. After I had done this, he waved his hand, and showed me how the pages were now completely colored in! And then, with another wave of his hand, all the pages were completely blank.

I thought it was pretty awesome, and when I showed my kids this trick the next day, their eyes got all big and round, and they were completely in awe.

So, that weekend we decided to go check out a magic shop not too far away. We ended up buying their beginning magician’s “starter kit,” and when we got home, the kids (and I) excitedly tore open the package and dove right in.

30 minutes later, my kids were playing video games, and I was reading a book on my phone.

Where did all that enthusiasm go?

This is the starter kit?!

The box may have said “starter kit”, but it didn’t take long for us to discover that making magic look easy, natural, and well, magical, requires an awful lot of skill and practice.

An obvious statement, I know, but why is this so easy to forget when we see great performers perform with such apparent effortlessness?

I think we want things to be easy. For there to be some trick, some secret, some little hack that will put us on the fast track to mastery.

Does such a thing exist?

Rafael Nadal’s secret to success

Tennis player Rafael Nadal was doing a series of interviews for a Bacardi campaign at the New World Center in Miami last year. One of the New World fellows served as his chaperone and had the opportunity to listen in on his interviews with various journalists. Later, he told me that there was one question that repeatedly came up in interview after interview. Want to guess what the question was?

Yep. Everyone wanted to know the secret to Nadal’s success. Was it something in his diet? Something in his training regimen? Some strategic insight about his opponents?

Nadal answered these questions politely, but by the end of the day, he started to get a little frustrated. Because Nadal was tired of explaining that he had no secret, unless working really, really hard counted as a secret. Of course, none of the journalists wanted to accept this as the answer. It wasn’t juicy enough, so they kept pushing for some other nugget of wisdom that they assumed he was keeping from them.

Chris Rock’s secret to success

I recently came across a story about comedian Chris Rock, and how he had came to a crossroads at one point in his career, and made the decision to focus his energies on mastering his craft instead of trying to become famous.

He gave the example of preparing for his HBO special Bring the Pain by spending a year and a half going from club to club, night after night,  honing his material and his delivery, so that when the moment came, he would be prepared to share with the world only the very best of his absolute best material.

Why can’t things be easy?

It’s human nature to look around us, to compare ourselves with others, to see how great they seem to have it, and to see how easily it all appears to have come for them.

But as a wise person once said, “Don’t compare your life with others. You have no idea what their journey is about.”

We don’t see how many ups and downs they have endured.

How much fear, doubt, and uncertainty they have faced – and may be dealing with still.

How many mistakes and “wrong” turns they’ve made in order to learn what they’ve needed to learn.

How many sacrifices there have been, how many sleepless nights they’ve had, how close to bankruptcy they’ve come, how much stress they’ve dealt with, and so on.

The secret

If there is a secret, I like what Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture – “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

So when you struggle, consider that maybe it’s not supposed to be easy this time. That perhaps you are on the threshold of an opportunity to experience a major breakthrough as a result of sticking with it, experimenting with new ideas and new techniques, looking for creative solutions, and doggedly continuing to improve in tiny increments.

Is it fun? No, not particularly. But struggling doesn’t mean you won’t get to the other side. It doesn’t mean you’re a talentless hack. It simply means you haven’t learned what you’re supposed to learn in order to take the next step. A mentor once told me that in such times, I ought to stop, take a deep breath, be curious and open-minded, and simply ask myself “What could I learn from this?”

Indeed, as implied by the proverb “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” it’s often these moments of struggle that lead to major advancements, innovations, and discoveries.

Case in point

I haven’t necessarily been a Chris Rock fan, but I became one during the course of watching this interview. He comes across as a real pro, an artist who has chosen the path of mastery. If you’re pressed for time, skip to 1:10:47, where he shares some advice with students in the audience.

The one-sentence summary

“Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” ~Winston Churchill

photo credit: ronnie44052 via photopin cc

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12 Responses

  1. I highly recommend Robert Greene’s book Mastery. I can’t imagine reading another book that will have the same impact on my life.

  2. Okay, first off: I feel silly, but the first thing I did when reading this is try to figure out how that coloring book worked. I think I’ve got it. 🙂

    Second, this reminds me of that masterclass that Joyce DiDonato did at your place where she said something like, “If you don’t keep getting hired back, it doesn’t mean you’re an awful person with no talent. It means you have more work to do. So just go do the work.”

    The hardest part is focusing on that. I’ve been realizing this gradually — we all say that focus is what matters, not worrying about the peripheral stuff. But as animals, it’s not really good idea to focus too deeply, or else we miss the leopard coming up behind us. I’ve come to realize that the biggest obstacle for me has been my inability to stop watching for the leopard. I keep thinking that if I focus down on something that fully, to the extent that I need to to get truly good at it, something will sneak up behind me while I’m distracted and get me. I can still only play piano with headphones, write my music with headphones, and my woodshed has a door that locks. I cannot manage to allow myself to focus down as fully as needed, like DiDonato and Rock advise, when I have to worry about someone standing behind me. And I don’t know how to turn it off.

    In the meantime, I still keep writing, playing, etc. So I’m not not doing it. I just can’t stomach concentrating without expecting that something that I should have seen had I not been distracted by the piano will sneak up behind me. No one else has ever mentioned this before that I’ve found — not in interviews, not in books, not in videos. Even people who talk about the hard work they have to do to succeed have never once brought this up, so I’m apparently a space alien for even worrying about it.


    1. Hey Janis,

      Yep, the trick is not nearly as cool once you figure out how it works. I’ve decided that I enjoy watching magic, and staying oblivious to how the tricks work.

      Funny enough, this post was supposed to center around DiDonato’s talk. Somehow it morphed into a post on Chris Rock.

      Regarding focus, it’s a little more complex than folks make it out to be. There are times when we have to focus in such a way that we can be aware of things sneaking up behind us. And then there are times when we have to narrow our focus and buckle down. Like most things in life, there are many shades of gray…optimal focus is highly dependent on what the situation calls for.

      1. Noa, I have to tweak you a bit here — and very, very gently because I admire you and have learned a great deal from your blog — but you could probably link to or interview a few women every now and then. 🙂

        Yeah, focus for me feels too much like taking my eyes off the road. I never feel so musical as I do when I compose, and I’m eternally grateful that I discovered this as a means of musical expression because it can be done alone and behind closed doors. I wish it had been presented to me as a child music student as a viable path for expression, but well, we find things as life presents them to us.

        1. No worries – I appreciate the feedback, Janis. It points out a potential blind spot, and I’ll have to make a point of being more aware of this in the future. Of course, when you see next week’s post, it’ll look like I’m being super responsive (you’ll see what I mean next week)…

  3. Loved the Chris Rock interview. Musicians have a tendency to blame the house. The hardest thing is to play like the crowd is rapt and every ticket is sold and the sound is perfect when, most nights, none of those things are true. I liked the detail about moving on stage… Would love more tricks like this, tailored for musicians.

  4. Beautiful post, thank you. The Last Lecture is something everyone should see, so I’m so glad you mentioned it!!

  5. BTW – I figured out my replacement can’t be the one, since there are no student audience questions/answers. Hopefully you can find an alternate version of the interview.

  6. Coming up to some big things musically for me, this is what I needed right now thank-you! I love listening to the interviews you do and wanted to throw the suggestion of a separate section where we can find all the audio talks together.

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