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