Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Are You a Guitar Player or Club Owner?

December 8th, 2009 · 28 comments

A Bluegrass SlogBluegrass

I recently began taking bluegrass guitar lessons.

It hasn’t been easy.

The style is precise, which means that it requires an abundance of repetitious practicing.  A typical session might proceed as follows:

  1. Listen to the same 10 – 30 second stretch of a song again and again, deconstructing the lead painfully, note by note, using your ear and a lot of trial and error.
  2. Play this section of the lead again and again for another 30 minutes to an hour — rarely getting through more than a few phrases without a mistake that forces you to start over.

Repeat this enough times, with an increasingly complicated progression of songs, and a weekly check-in with a teacher to correct subtle mistakes in your technique, and you’ll eventually be able to make your way through some basic bluegrass tunes without embarrassing yourself. In other words, the path to becoming even a passable amateur is long and demanding.

I’m sharing these observations because I think they provide an interesting metaphor for the task of building a remarkable life...

Grit vs. Frenzy

As I described above, learning to play bluegrass guitar is not a lot of fun. This being said, however, it’s also not that demanding on your life: its daily time requirements are reasonable and it generates no stress. Furthermore, the effort will eventually provide big rewards, such as the experience of passing around the lead with a group of talented bluegrass musicians.

Compare this goal with the related pursuit of running the music club where such musicians play. Unlike learning the guitar, running a club is infamously demanding: It requires long, exhausting hours, and injects unhealthy amounts of stress into your life.  Furthermore, the rewards don’t compare to those experienced by the admired musicians entrancing the crowd.

Here’s the important point: most people are more comfortable becoming a club owner, even though the guitar player enjoys less stress and more rewards.

I don’t mean this in the literal sense that most people want to start music clubs. Instead, I’m referring to the idea that most people are more comfortable with the club owner-style work frenzies than they are with the guitar player-style grit.

For example, to draw an analogy to college…

Most students are more comfortable trying to survive lots of classes and activities than they are investing the deep concentration — spent with a pint in a quiet bar or a notebook under a tree — required to become an A* student in a single subject.

This holds true even though the latter path is less stressful, more engaging, and opens up more exciting post-grad opportunities.

And, in the workplace…

Most employees are more comfortable getting ahead by taking on more work than their peers and reducing their e-mail response time to the single digits than they are mastering, bit by bit, a skill that’s incredibly valuable in their field.

This holds true even though the latter is the key to an enjoyable career, and the former can provide only standard-paced promotions (and ulcers).

The Guitar Player Paradox

I’m intrigued by this observation that we prefer stress over hard focus. My current hypothesis proposes two explanations:

First, the club owner strategy is more predictable — you can’t go wrong working harder, even if its rewards are distilled.

Second, and perhaps more important, hard focus, at first, can be incredibly uncomfortable  — so much so that we’d rather accept 12 hour days of regular work than spend 2 hours on intense concentration. The good news is that, as Haruki Murakami taught us, hard focus is a practiced skill. If you improve this ability enough, the guitar player path might eventually seem less onerous.

I plan on exploring this paradox in more detail in the near future, as I wonder if it might hold the key to jump-starting a remarkable life. In the mean time, you should ask yourself a simple question:

Who are you trying to become, the guitar player or the club owner?

(Photo by Bill Gracey)

28 thoughts on “Are You a Guitar Player or Club Owner?

  1. Stephanie says:

    Hi Cal, I am sure you must have already come across Malcolm Gladwell’s book _Outliers: The Story of Success_ but I can’t remember you mentioning it in any posts, so I thought I would recommend it. He has an unusual perspective on how people become successful, that in some ways corresponds to your philosophy, but I would be interested in hearing your take on it.

  2. Dave says:

    Yeah what you don’t see or think about when you watch someone on stage playing guitar and making it look so easy is the hours and hours and hours of practice that it took them to get there. If you really want it. There is no other way than practice. But its worth it.

  3. Steve says:

    Cal – great to see you mastering a new skill and glad that it is Bluegrass guitar you’re pursuing. What lasts longer, your ability to concentrate, or, your fingertips?

    Anyway, my take is that we sometimes prefer stress because it accompanies an abdication of responsibility (frenzy). It’s difficult but at least it’s not our faults. Concentration, on the other hand, is difficult, but it is our responsibility (grit). We must accept the blame if we fail. Fear of failure often hamstrings the incentives of success as a motivator.

  4. Maureen says:

    I’d rather be the club owner if I can bring you in to play guitar for an evening for, say, $500 and can make $1000 from fees for entrance and people buying drinks in the club that evening. However, I am one of the dreaded business grads.
    I do learn a lot from your blog about hard focus, however.

  5. Karl says:

    Maureen, perhaps you’re making the “club owner” into the “guitar player.” You’re looking for ways to make your club so great that it can’t be ignored. That creativity takes innovation, the less stressful and more exciting route in the end.

  6. David says:

    Hi Cal, I think you’re calling the club manager the club owner, when in fact they may be two separate people. As Maureen said, the club owner can make money while the club manager has to deal with the stress.

  7. paurullan says:

    I definitely prefer the guitar player: the cool things happen to the people who do not mind getting dirty. I study CS in the UIB, Spain, and I see everyday people breaking his head studying 12 hours straight plus having jobs on the side but they are not even remotely interested in the state of the art.

    Maybe I am just a longshot or misunderstood the purpose of this post but in my opinion having the fast-track in college but forgetting the big picture of your studies does not make any sense.

  8. Wow, this is fantastic.
    When I look at my life, I think I am becoming more of a club owner, running everywhere, never stand still. But I think I will make a good guitar player. Hard focus is something I should be able to do.

    Well, I won’t make a good guitar player because I am pretty non-musical, but you know what I mean!

    Thanks Cal, I think this is one of the best metaphors I’ve ever heard..

  9. Steven says:

    Great analogy Cal, but I see a lot of people taking the guitar path – maybe its my location?

  10. Betti says:

    Yes, I take your point. However, there also need to be club owners. Otherwise the guitar player has nowhere to play and his audience has nowhere to go and see him play!

    I think we should appreciate those who shun the limelight and are happy to put up with the stress and fewer rewards (in terms of admiration and fame), but by doing so provide the stage for others to shine.

  11. supergirl says:

    You forget the part where the guitar player still faces massively long odds no matter how good he gets. (I’m an orchestral musician, and in a typical job audition, you’d be looking at 200:1, where all 200 auditionees were at the top of their class and are often several years and postgraduate degrees out of college. There’s a bigger market for bluegrass guitar than orchestral woodwind, but it’s still pretty long odds). The club owner, on the other hand, can be relatively mediocre and still earn a living from his skill. It’s the same in generalised terms – there’s a solid, if undistinguished, market for middling jacks-of-all-trades, but you’d better actually become good if you want the specialist approach to work for you. All about risk, really.

    (also, on a mildly related note, as far as learning music goes, it helps to break it down into even smaller chunks and practice them slowly, and also to build up some basic aural pattern recognition to make the listening bit proceed faster. You want to minimise the ‘error’ part of trial and error as much as possible because you run the risk of internalising mistakes if you keep repeating them, and correcting an internalised mistake is a lot harder than learning it right the first time. Of course, detailed breakdown and intellectual analysis is more work and less fun, but that’s what hard focus is all about, right?)

  12. Suzyn says:

    I’ll circle back to a question from a couple of posts back – how do you choose which skill to master? Why bluegrass guitar and not, say, saxophone or tap dancing? On the one hand, there’s personal preference – but how do you, say, identify the most valuable skills in a given field?

  13. Karl says:

    I think one way to view this is to do something of practical value in an unconventional method. Cal has mentioned that creative students think like a good entrepreneur, not settling for the “proven” method. Distill your life to what actually is producing the results, discard other filler activities and you’ll be happier through less work.

    NOT that you should be a professional guitar player (Cal isn’t, right?).

  14. Study Hacks says:

    Don’t get too caught up in the details of the metaphor. There are three important points: (1) becoming a good guitar player requires a different style of work than becoming a good club owner; (2) most people have a preference for the club owner style of work; (3) in many fields, however, it is the guitar player style that can return outsized rewards.

    but how do you, say, identify the most valuable skills in a given field?

    For some fields its obvious (i.e., if you want to write, or be a comedian, the skill to master is clear), for others it’s less obvious (i.e., a standard office job). My best advice is to keep your eyes open and try to figure out what makes the stars in your field stars…

  15. JLD says:

    building a remarkable life…

    Are you sure you really know what you are aiming at?
    What about an enjoyable life?
    There should be some measure to it: Enjoyment Returned On Toil Invested…

  16. Study Hacks says:

    What about an enjoyable life?

    Some of the features I think define a “remarkable life” include flexibility of how you spend your time, recognition for your work, and good compensation.

  17. d says:

    The analogy seems to make a big assumption that all musicians approach playing music in the same way as the author, that it’s “work” that requires “grit.”

    There seems to be a big difference between people who view making music or playing an instrument as work and people for whom it comes naturally. Yeah, if music isn’t an integral part of your soul and/or you are trying to learn to play a certain style on a certain instrument it can seem like work that requires “grit.” But if it’s a natural part of you then becoming good at it is just a side effect. It doesn’t take “grit” for some people to put in many hours “practicing.” Quite to opposite. For people who are naturally inclined to make music, it takes work *not* to make music.

    Also, from what I’ve seen, the division between the two approaches is also the division between those who mainly play or mimic the music of others and those who are artists. I’d argue that this is also why you’ll do a better job at anything you are naturally interested in.

    Long story short, if you follow your interests, you’ll often automatically become good at whatever you are trying to do. Putting in the time becomes effortless, expanding your domain knowledge becomes completely effortless, honing your skills becomes effortless.

    Going back to the analogy, all this applies whether you are a musician or a club owner. There are people who are naturally club owners, promoters and hosts for whom doing that kind of work is a natural state of being.

    The problems only arise when you go against your nature.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    There seems to be a big difference between people who view making music or playing an instrument as work and people for whom it comes naturally.

    No one picks up a guitar and discovers that they can just naturally crosspick without much gritty practice. Regardless of what’s in your soul, mastering hard skills requires hard focus.

    Long story short, if you follow your interests, you’ll often automatically become good at whatever you are trying to do. Putting in the time becomes effortless, expanding your domain knowledge becomes completely effortless, honing your skills becomes effortless.

    This is a dangerous myth that derails many people on their quest to master something. Read any biography of a famous athlete, musician, comedian, or writer: there’s nothing effortless about their rise. It takes hard focus that never gets easier.

  19. Cara says:

    Long story short, if you follow your interests, you’ll often automatically become good at whatever you are trying to do. Putting in the time becomes effortless, expanding your domain knowledge becomes completely effortless, honing your skills becomes effortless.

    No, no, no, a thousand times no. Cal already touched on this, but it bears repeating: it takes a lot of damn hard work to make something look easy. The better you get at a skill, the easier it looks to an outsider, but never mistake “looking easy” for “easy to do.” Putting in the practice time may become more enjoyable as your skills improve, but it’s never effortless.

  20. Karl says:

    To add another counter to the “comes with ease” debate, I’ll say that if something required truly no effort at all, then it would quickly lose the sense of satisfaction.

  21. ElamBend says:

    I can imagine that most people, right out of school have a hard time deciding what to focus on. Few people now work in their ultimate field of expertise right out of school and lacking a clear choice of what to focus on, many make up for it by working hard on everything in kind of a shotgun approach. In that case, maybe it would be better to focus on an avocation, just for the deep focus practice until the choice in vocation becomes more clear.

    btw, Cal, I look forward to 20 years from now listening to a guitar concert by you using new radio transmitters implanted in our skulls, also invented by the famous Cal Newport … 😉

  22. Seungjin says:

    I agree with supergirl in that the metaphor was a tad terse.

    Cal, I agree with the point eventually say, but I couldn’t
    help question myself if being an actual club owner is really
    that bad. I know what you mean but the ability to provide an environment for people to enjoy music, and for the performer to submerge in her/his performance is what came across my mind while reading your post.

    Then again, this is a blog. This post is I think an example of how blog posts are in fact at the root level personal opinions. I can’t be anal about how the metaphor was this and that.

  23. J says:

    Good post, and I understand how it’s possible to be a good, innovative club owner instead of the manic grind discussed.

    Now I’d better stop procrastinating and get back to running my “Study for finals” club … at 3:30 am …

  24. nicholas says:

    Cal, I like your perspective. There is much validity to your argument that mastering a skill versus insisting on doing many less than perfect is a good path to take. However, I have concern that you dont have a full understanding of the working world. You live in the world of academia and you understand it better than most. The outside world does not reward specialization like academia does. In the beginning you must do everything and anything to be billable to a client (certainly in my world of environmental consulting). Its the people who insist on doing only one thing find themselves without a job. Bosses are often the people who have done it all and therefor are in the position to discuss all matters of business with clients intelligently.
    Specialization does have its place…
    They excel when times are good and they are in demand but when times are tough its the adaptable generalist that can survive.
    I liken it to the evolutionary process of proliferation and extinction. During good times all niches are filled by all types of animals and some grow extremely large becuase there is plenty of food and resources. Then mass extinction comes and the environments change and the niches that these animals filled are altered leading to a decline in numbers or extinction all together. One need only look at elephants and blue whales(large) or pandas(niche) to see the truth behind this.

  25. Study Hacks says:

    The outside world does not reward specialization like academia does.

    I disagree. I think in almost any field, including environmental consulting, building up a valuable expert skill within your field is rewarded. This doesn’t mean, of course, that while building this skill you refuse to do anything else. Those with the most valuable skills, I argue, are best able to survive ups and downs, as they do something that few can. If instead you follow the standard strategy of being diligent and thoughtful, and doing what you’re told in a timely fashion, then you’re replaceable, which makes you vulnerable.

  26. Will says:

    As I described above, learning to play bluegrass guitar is not a lot of fun. This being said, however, it’s also not that demanding on your life: its daily time requirements are reasonable and it generates no stress.

    This is absurd. Learning to play an instrument at a high level is extremely taxing and certainly stressful at times.

  27. well, my guess as to the Club Owner-instant gratification….

    learning guitar at a steady pace, might be tens years before you are any good….

    The club owner starts seeing paychecks and the like early on. Also, just a guess but there is probably also way more competition as a guitarist….

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