There are lots and lots of books on this subject written by people who are far more qualified than myself, I’m no expert on this subject, but I’ve always had some goal that I was aiming myself towards, so this is really just what I’ve learned about self improvement from my years of striving to better myself.
Step one: Care.
We often flagellate ourselves over what we’ve failed at, or what we’ve failed to accomplish, especially when others who are younger, or who have been doing something for less time than we have seem to surpass us, or the opposite situation, when we see someone who’s been at something much longer and with more diligence than we have, when that person is high on the mountaintop and we say to ourselves “What’s the point, I’ll never be as good as they are”. I felt this way when I was 10 and my father bought me my first guitar. I would get so angry at myself for being bad at playing that I’d start to cry and just get angry and feel like an idiot holding the guitar which I couldn’t make do anything. But we’re really good at being hard on ourselves when we shouldn’t be, and taking it easy on ourselves when it’s undeserved. You might say ‘well how can someone be simultaneously too hard and too soft?
I would sit there and pout about not being able to play anything, or how I didn’t know anything, but did I bother to learn more about the musical scales? Or all the notes on the neck of the guitar? (quick primer: a guitar has 6 strings, and those little metal bars are called the ‘frets’ there are usually 20-24, it varies from instrument to instrument) No. I wasn’t willing to slow down and learn the basics. All I did was try over and over to play the entire tablature (a format of writing down the notes of a song so that people who can’t read music and don’t know the notes which correspond with the frets) to the song ‘Mr. Crowley’ by Ozzy Osbourne and guitar player Randy Rhoads. That’s a hard song, even for a somewhat experienced player, let alone someone who doesn’t even know the basics of the guitar! To top it all off, I didn’t even have a recording of the song to listen to, to check that I was playing each note with the correct timing (so even if I hit all the right notes I would have no idea how fast or short I should play each one). Then, because I was only 14 and we didn’t have much money, if I broke a string that would mean I could go a month or two without playing again because I didn’t have my own car, or my own income to buy strings, so I’d basically have to get lucky and have enough money in the family budget for more strings.
This is all to say that there are three elements to success, and you can only control the first two. The first two elements go hand in hand: Diligence, and patience. Diligence is the willingness to try, and to keep trying, to not give up no matter what. Patience is the judgement to know what you should and shouldn’t expect of yourself. I shouldn’t have expected myself to play Mr. Crowley because it was way beyond my skill level, and I was practicing a sort of ‘anti-patience’ by trying to play it over and over again. You could say ‘but James, you were being patient to try the song for every day for a year, even though you never got anywhere with it’, but I wasn’t being patient at all. I only ever tried to play the song from the tablature in it’s entirety, all the way through, every time I played it. Now, of course it began to sound better over time because I was diligent, but my patience ran out because my goal of playing the whole song perfectly from memory never came to fruition. The right way to learn the song would have been to slow down, break the song into multiple pieces, and learn each piece individually until I could tie all those pieces together into one whole song that I could execute well. Now, obviously this is all to say nothing of the third element: luck.
I have often thought of luck as a free-floating element totally disconnected from your own ability to succeed. But have you ever noticed that some people are great successes at things and they can’t explain how they got there, then we all call it luck? There is some element of this notion of luck involved, but I think it’s far less to do with random chance than a lack of diligence and patience. Think of it this way: you’ll never be able to guarantee you’ll be Randy Rhoads (or for that matter, someone who is truly successful, or ‘one of the greats’ at something) but you can very easily guarantee that you will definitely never be one of the greats. How can you guarantee you’ll never succeed? Quit. It’s that simple. Give up. Or, if you want to be trapped in the same old rut forever, don’t study your failures. Don’t look at how or why you failed, just focus on the fact that you failed. Also, if you want to succeed, you need to look at the circumstances in which you’ve failed. But looking back I have to acknowledge that it was hard for me to be good at guitar because of lack of resources. My parents had gone through a bad divorce and for years after that they refused to talk to each other, so when they tacitly agreed to take me to guitar practice in shifts, my father stopped paying for practice when my mother failed to drive me one time. But nowadays my passion is for writing, which it’s easier for me to be good at, because I my mom lets me live at home and work part time, and I pay no rent. I also have a verbal IQ of 130, so it’s a skill that comes naturally to me. I’ve improved somewhat at my writing, but the only way I was able to do that was by first actually writing something (obviously writing isn’t what we’re all trying to improve at, but ‘practice makes perfect’) and the second part of improving at writing is that I practice patience. I haven’t been as good at this second skill as I would like to say I’ve been, because I mostly think of a novel I’m working on, or rather, haven’t been working on. But that brings me to my final point.
A few months ago I ran into an old boss at the gym. He commented on how I looked way thinner, and more muscular than I was when he left. I was shocked when I realized he actually wanted my advice, because he really could see that I had succeeded where he had failed (or at least that’s how he felt about it) at improving his physique. I told him most of what I’ve just told you, but I added one final piece: When you fail, either through lack of diligence or just a regular error, forgive yourself. I can’t tell you how many guitar practice sessions I’d cut short because I started crying because I was so angry with myself because I’d failed. This piece of advice is easier said than done, but think about it: if success is your goal, beating yourself up about your failures is pointless! You have to be willing to accept your failures and say to yourself: “Yeah, I’ve failed, but I’ll never have what I want if I stop here. If I don’t take an honest and objective look at where I’ve failed and what made me fail I’ll never improve, and if I’m diligent and keep trying I’ll succeed simply by virtue of the law of averages.”