The Banjo Player
Steve Martin made the comments around twenty minutes into his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. They were talking about how Martin learned the banjo.
“In high school, I couldn’t play an instrument,” Martin admits.
“I remember getting my first banjo, and reading the book saying ‘this is how you play the C chord,’ and I put my fingers down to play the C chord and I couldn’t tell the difference.”
“But I told myself,” he continued, “just stick with this, just keep playing, and one day you’ll have been playing for 40 years, and at this point, you’ll know how to play.”
Learning banjo is not easy, especially at a time and place (1960’s California) where banjo lessons were not a possibility. Martin’s technique was to take Earl Scruggs records and slow them down from 33 RPM to 16 RPM. He would then tune down the banjo to match the slower speed and start picking out the notes, painstakingly, one by one.
Years later, Martin began to integrate the banjo into his act.
“The reason I played [banjo] on stage,” he explained in an ABC interview, “is because…I thought it’s probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I’m just making it up.”
As he kept playing and practicing he got better.
In 2009, Martin released his first album, “The Crow.” It won a Grammy. (Last month he was nominated for his second Grammy.)
This was 50 years after Martin picked up his first Banjo — not far off from the 40 years he had predicted as a teenager it would take him to “know how to play.”
One of the things that has always impressed me about Steve Martin is his diligence. In his memoir, Born Standing Up, he emphasizes this theme — defining diligence not just in terms of persistence, but also in the ability to ignore unrelated pursuits.
Martin was, of course, being facetious when he pepped himself up with the idea that it would only take 40 years to get good at the banjo (he was playing at a high-level in his act within 5 – 10 years of starting his training), but this statement reflects a deeper truth: getting good at something is not to be taken lightly; it’s a pursuit measured in years, not weeks.
This diligence defined Martin’s path.
He spent decades focused intensely on his act, which meant two things: banjo and jokes.
After reaching the peak of the live comedy world in the 1970s he turned his attention for years to making movies.
Then he spent years working on fiction writing.
More recently he’s returned back to his banjo.
If you collapse Martin’s skills into a flat list, he sounds like a Renaissance man, but if you take a snapshot of any particular point of his life, you’ll encounter relentless, longterm focus on a very small number of things.
Diligence Versus the World
I’m reintroducing this idea of diligence because I keep encountering it in the stories of people with remarkable lives and yet almost never see it mentioned in the online community where Study Hacks lives.
And this is a problem.
We’ve created this fantasy world where everyone is just 30 days of courage boosting exercises and life hacks away from living an amazing life.
But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.
Part of the resistance to diligence comes from the following two common complaints:
- I don’t love any one thing enough to pursue it with such dedication.
- I like to keep my options open.
These complaints, it’s important to realize, are built on shaky ground.
To counter the first worry, recall that the idea of pre-existing passion, as I’ve argued many times, has almost no scientific backing. Martin, for example, with his commitment to diligence, could have created a remarkable life based on any number of different pursuits.
He ended up playing banjo because Pete Seeger was big at the time, and ended up in comedy because, when he was young, his parents moved to a town next to Disneyland, where Martin landed a job that surrounded him by professional performers.
If his parents had instead moved to Cape Canaveral, Martin may have become an important rocket scientist.
If they had moved to the Lower East Side, we’d probably know Martin today primarily as a novelist.
When it comes to passion, the what is often much less important than the how.
The worry about keeping options open is even more groundless. I have a new book coming out in September (its title, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, also comes from Martin). I’ll talk more about this project later, but one of the things I discuss in the book is that when you study the evidence, it’s clear that you’re not likely to encounter real interesting opportunities in your life until after you’re really good at something.
If you avoid focus because you want to keep your options open, you’re likely accomplishing the opposite. Getting good is a prerequisite to encountering options worth pursuing.
For these reasons, I think diligence is a subject we should explore in more depth. We just finished a long series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which turned out to be an important pattern in the Grand Theory of Remarkability we’ve been exploring here on Study Hacks. I’m guessing that this emerging diligence hypothesis will end up the next important pattern uncovered by this effort. But we have a lot of work to do to better understand how and why this strategy works.
(Photo by lincolnblues)