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)
56 thoughts on “Closing Your Interests Opens More Interesting Opportunities: The Power of Diligence in Creating a Remarkable Life”
How exactly does one choose the right thing to pursue? Does it just come naturally, or that you just have to choose one thing and stop any unrelated pursuits? I have trouble choosing what I want to eventually “specialize” in, and as a result spend far too much time on many different hobbies and getting good at none of them.
Did you find an answer to your question? I’m struggling with it too.
If Steve Martin’s potential was so malleable by the circumstances he grew up in, next to Disneyland (which of course makes sense: neither rocket science nor writing nor professional stand-up comedy is natural to us), then isn’t there a circumstance theory to success also, a la Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers?
I think that this is only true in ‘winner takes all’ fields like performing or sales or writing. In those fields where the winners get disproportionate rewards it makes sense to be dilligent and only focus on those fields. But in other fields, there aren’t necessarily any greater rewards for being the best at your craft.
For example, the best waiter- one who focused on being a great waiter, learned everything about customer service, etc. is not going to earn that much more money or have greater rewards than a bad waiter.
That practice might set them up for success in a related field- such as running a restaurant or something else. But until you get to a field/position where you get paid based on performance, being diligent about practice won’t necessarily bring greater rewards.
Most people who have “amazing” lives seem to have careers in fields where there are big winners and many small losers- for example, entrepreneurs, performers, media personalities (or anybody who relies on the media such as authors, speakers, etc. because of media’s limited opportunities). Even scam artists who live amazing lives operate in a field where the best can have disproportionate rewards.
It seems like there is a large portion of society that work in jobs where there aren’t really outsize rewards for being the best. For example: nurses, pharmacists, customer service representatives, chefs, ships captains etc. In most of these fields, there is not much reward for being the best, unless you move into a related field, like consulting on these fields in the media. For example, celebrity chefs aren’t famous because they are great chefs- they’re famous because they’re in the media and other chefs aren’t. They probably aren’t even the best chefs in the world- just the best on tv.
What I would take away from this is that people should look at their field and see if it is a winner take all field or not. If it is- then they need to be dilligent and focus on it and become a winner- do more and do better at it than anybody else (or 99% of people). And in such a field it would not be uncommon to wait years for success.
But if they’re not in such a field, doing all that practice and work won’t help. In that case they should keep their day job, but move into one of those fields on the side and figure out how to become one of the best.
One of the points I am trying to make is that there isn’t a single “right” thing to pursue. Martin, for example, might have built a remarkable life around many different pursuits. It’s not the details of the pursuit that is most important, it’s how you pursue it.
The point of that hypothetical (notice the term) is that there was not necessarily something special about comedy for Steve Martin. Circumstance exposed him to that direction, but he wasn’t wired for it. This is good news. This means that you don’t have to worry so much about finding what you were meant to do. We’re not meant to do anything. Choose something good enough and go after it. Or something like that.
You point out that people who build remarkable lives tend to be in jobs that are winner take all. I think that’s true. These people are able to amass great value in the marketplace which gives them great leverage over their lives — giving them the flexibility to craft their life (though many in this situation don’t take advantage of that opportunity).
I think there are some jobs where this style of career crafting value is not easily built.
I think there are also some different ways of crafting remarkable lives that is completely different.
These are all true things. Of these different topics I’m interested in the first right now.
I started following your blog back when you first began talking about Steve Martin. You were promoting the principle “Get to be so good they can’t ignore you.” I was writing a study guide for a segment of the bar exam. The book promised to take forever, and to eat up all of my time into the distant future, preventing my ever earning a normal income. But because of your blog, Cal, and the good example of Steve Martin that you were holding up, I kept repeating to myself, “Get to be so good they can’t ignore you,” and plugging away. Finally, my book has been published, and the first reviews, both in the professional blogosphere and on Amazon.com, are excellent. The book will add to my income, although it will not make me rich. But the satisfactions are enormous. And when I look in the mirror in the morning, I see someone who didn’t live here five years ago. Thank you.
I agree that the idea of overnight success that’s rampant around the internet is fool’s gold. But swinging to the other side of the pendulum is just as damaging an idea – at least in the way it’s presented. Everyone loves to tout the 10,000 hours, 10 years idea from Malcom Gladwell, but that makes it incredibly daunting to choose something to focus on. Just as daunting as leaving all your options open.
It would be nice to get some middle ground advice going. In fact, Steve Martin played the banjo, practiced comedy, performed magic shows, and studied philosophy (which influenced his comedy). He later became an actor, a novelist and a fine art connoisseur.
The point is that he did choose a few things he was interested in and did practice them diligently. Some panned out into great careers, others just kept his life interesting and remarkable. He seems to have a nice well-rounded life.
Thanks for writing this. I have been using this philosophy in my work, and it definitely gets results. However, I think it’s not as simple as “developing one skill.” Looking carefully at what let me get put in a situation in which I could do such work in the first place, these factors were all very much outside my control.
My main concern with this whole philosophy is the extreme survivorship bias behind it, and in general not accounting for other aspects of circumstance that are out of control of the person practicing it. It seems like “being so good at something that you cannot be ignored” only works if you are good at something other people care about. In particular, Steve being a novelist if he was from the Lower East side belies the overly simplistic view you take of the whole situation. I think there are likely to be a lot worse things that could have happened to him if that were the case; I think it is very likely no prospect would have been “good enough” around which to “craft a career.”
The entire thing wrong with this is that you have not provided any _negative_ examples; you have advertised this as, focus on a technology or a skill, build on it, and they (happiness, money, love, etc) will come to you. Whereas that’s just completely outside the experience of many people.
Is there some kind of non-anecdotal evidence you can point to, that shows that your whole philosophy is more than repeating anecdotes about people who succeed and trying to pass off this as a Fully General Solution to success? I think you are also hugely downplaying the role of circumstance, such as being the right sex, race, or having the right social network.
E.g., and this is not anecdotal but a general trend, but there are lots of students (Asian students, students from MIT, Caltech, etc) who are really into crafting particular skills like math, science, music, and programming, but due to their neglect of developing soft skills and circumstantial factors like structural racism or sexism, never really got to have the dream jobs or feel fulfilled in personal relationships. They would continue on as impressive _robots_ who would do the grunt work while the Real People had Real Lives. You can’t chalk these completely up to personal failure.
Mary’s response to your post reminds me of that one comment by the college student who said that due to your blog he excelled in school AND got to spend every night with his girlfriend.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- You can die a happy man.
Also, Mary, your “When I look in the mirror in the morning, I see someone who didn’t live here five years ago” quote is damn inspiring.
This post is incredible. You absolutely nailed it. So so very well done.
Mary, that’s music to my ears.
You should share the book title (and link) in the comments here; plenty of lawyer types read Study Hacks and might appreciate the fruits of your efforts.
I love your focus on diligence. This trait is ESSENTIAL when it comes to writing. You’ve chosen to contrast diligence with passion. But I’d prefer to contrast it with “talent.” So many people feel they don’t have the talent to write (or, presumably, to do other things) but if they just put in the time of course they’d be able to do it. Commitment and diligence will overcome just about any obstacle.
I’ve heard a quote before. It goes like this: “The years know something the days and weeks do not.”
Very applicable to this, I’d say.
I suppose the most difficult thing is just choosing something to delve into. I’ve always thought that I need to be a renaissance man and have multiple things going at once, but I could be a better one if I focus on one thing at a time and move onto something else when I’ve achieved mastery.
I love doing so much, but I suppose I just need the momentum to get started and start delving into a topic. I bet when I do get started, it’ll be like a drug to continue. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it requires damn hard work.
The problem is, I don’t know what to pick. I know it doesn’t matter what to pick, I just don’t know. Any advice?
Thank you for your kind response and your kind invitation to post the name of the book I wrote under your and Steve Martin’s influence, plus a link. The book is called Perform Your Best on the Bar Exam Performance Test (MPT): Train to Finish the MPT in 90 Minutes “Like a Sport(TM).” It’s on Amazon at https://tinyurl.com/PerformYourBest. Your blog was crucial.
I sometimes meet people that seem to have it all “together” and I notice that they have a routine, discipline, care for their lives, a profession (often a boring one) and they tend to very good at it. They typically have one or two hobbies they truly love. Instead of being a prisoner to routine, discipline and schedule, they seem to flourish in it and find it one of the more joyful and comforting things in their life. They look out, long term, and seem to be in no big hurry, simply enjoying what they are doing, while they are doing it.
To some degree it comes down to a coin flip.
I’m being somewhat simplistic in saying that — not *all* options are created equal — but the sentiment is more or less true. If you sit down and figure out which option seems to have the best combination of potential to lead to interesting places, and hold on your own interests, that answer is as good as any to start focusing. It does not represent some deeper “right” answer, it’s just a good enough motivation to get you started on what matters: diligently working.
Atul gawade wrote a nice piece on diligence in one of his book. I don’t remember much about it though.
Good post. The argument against pre-existing passion reminded me of a similar statement made by Amy Chua:
“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”
The position you advocate appears rather non-Western, or at least non-contemporary-Western (indeed I suspect the fetish for passion can be traced to the cult of genius spawned by romanticism).
How did you come to it?
I believe that being able to work diligently and focus pointedly is itself a big reward in life.
Cal, I’ve made two sizeable life-decisions based on your research. Both were counter-intuitive, but I trusted your research over my intuition, and WOW am I ever glad I did. No time to elaborate now, just know that your research is making no small difference in people’s lives. I am grateful!
Here’s my context and question: I’m a youth pastor, and am wondering what your thoughts are on pursuing excellence in something that is far less defined than a particular skill-set, like playing the banjo, or even other careers where success is a bit more black and white. I’m wrestling with how one might measure continual growth and success in something as organic as leading a student ministry. I’m interested, I would love to define what that looks like…I just can’t wrap my brain around it. Any help?
Thank Cal, keep up the great work my friend!
I’ve thought about this philosophy in relationship to my vocation as a pastor. It seems to me, even in youth ministry there are certain skills which you could master to become “so good they can’t ignore you” (mind you, not in the sense that you’re after your own fame, but for God’s). For example, I think teaching and public speaking, biblical research, counseling, and management would be some general skills to master for ministry leadership roles. What do you think?
This article is awesome! You definitely nailed it buddy! Your philosophy is really creating positive change to all your readers by picking our brains. Well done for that. All the best to you this 2012 and keep your posts coming!
It is hard to pick a few things to focus on, but I think it’s worth it. Just as there is cognitive overhead involved with trying to multitask, it seems like there is too with switching between various hobbies and interests. As that 10000 hour number gets bandied about, it’s very clear that you cannot legitimately become an expert at all the things that interest you, so you have to be more selective.
Do you have any thoughts on how to overcome the desire to consume rather than produce and/or work on skills and talents?
I do legal translation. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I have translated over a million words over the last 2.5 years. Day in, day out I spend hours crafting translations. Over time I have gotten better. In fact my boss has agreed to my proposal that I work remotely.
I remember as a new graduate I wondered if legal translation is what I wanted in life. Then I realised that it gives me a decent income at the age of 24 while I travel, experiment with new hobbies and learn new things, so I got stuck in to learning all I could.
Now I am focusing on learning how to sell. The way I see it, I’ll put in another 2-3 years deeply learning how to market and sell my existing skills. Once I have done that, it will be easy to start selling my other nascent skills of copywriting, programming or webdesign.
They say you should study your heroes, and Steve Martin has been one of mine for years. I have had some great success in my career as a writer, and long, long spells of fallow drudgery. I have alway had the curse/blessing of wanting to be the Renaissance Man – or maybe more accurately, wanting to find a Grand Unified Theory of Everything I Want To Do. But your post here underlines what I have always suspected to be true that you must focus intently on a single thing – and that focus may well open other avenues from unexpected directions.
I think many of us have an obsession with time – there’s just not enough time for me to do accomplish all those goals I want, so I’ll just try to do a little bit of all of them now, rather than taking them on methodically, on one at a time. But there is enough time. To encourage myself, I have often repeated to myself, “There is enough time to do everything you want to do in life. But no more than that.”
I almost want to counter Patrick’s comment that people who hold amazing lives work in fields where there is a disproportionate range of success to failure in terms of achievement. He cited waiters and chefs, but I would disagree on the whole and with his particular choices of example.
1) An amazing life doesn’t require that it be exposed and many of the lives we study are only studied because they are known. Some industries do have greater exposure than others so it raises the idea that some lives are more amazing, but that could be described as a false positive or a bad correlation.
2) Amazing lives are relative and there are disparities in the field between those who have achieved and experiencing the results and those not. I think the key is to look at the entire path a certain career can take. Waiters can go on to become the Maitre d’ of a 5 star restaurant for a well known chef and on to running restaurants on their own. The distinction in their career is greatly different than those who wait tables at TGIF. It’s the same with chefs. There are chefs who aren’t celebrities, but known to be some of the best in the world. They do interviews where they explain how they are happier than ever before simply because they are allowed to cook new foods for new people and generate an experience that they don’t think that person would otherwise experience.
3) Happiness unfortunately is almost and entirely anecdotal field of study while neuroscience still develops into something that can be relied upon to measure almost anything. I’m not sure what type of numbers you are looking for, but there is bound to be some anecdotal quality to them, so you may be asking for a bit much there.
Hello Eddie Schodowski, looks like you have the same problem as I; along with the current post, also check the following book by Barbara Sher:
I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was
My apologies for the pingback spam above, I cited your article on my blog and I can’t seem to retract the pingback. But your article is excellent, which is why I cited it…
@3: Being great at something, even an unglamorous job, will get you disproportionate results. By giving 100% and being creative in doing so, you will get more and better opportunities. OR, if your goal is to stay where you are, then you get the benefit of having the people you work with enjoy your company and seek out your advice.
I find it interesting that you mentioned “the best waiter.” I know a college graduate who was a great waiter right out of school, and she was offered a job interview by a patron for a job that she now truly enjoys, pays much more, offers more opportunities, etc.
It seems to me that the primary requirement for an amazing life (as it is defined here) is a big freaking wad of cash. After that just pick a hobby and take it seriously. No sweat. If your hobby makes you that big freaking wad of cash, that works, too. But to paraphrase the author of the post, being rich and sitting on your butt doesn’t cut it. Neither diligence nor being so good they can’t ignore you suffice. Not even mastery of a craft. Look at the famous criminals. Ted Bundy hones his craft for years and worked diligently. He got so good no one could ignore him. But he wasn’t rich. And he didn’t have an amazing life. If you think that the reason he didn’t have an amazing life was that he was a criminal or endangered lives, look at Frank Abnagale. He did it right. He honed his craft from before he was 16, got so good even entire countries could not ignore him, served less than five years in prison, had more different careers than many families, and is today rich, working with the FBI, a published author, a highly paid consultant, and he was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a Steven Speilberg movie. He was a criminal and endangered lives, too, but he got rich. Note the subtle difference? If you’re poor, no one blogs about your diligent subsistence farming in the salted desert, even if you play banjo. If you’re rich, you’ll at least get filler pieces about your belly button lint collection in Parade, if not a Steven Spielberg movie of your own. No banjo playing required.
@ Steve O:
So was your friend’s patron hiring her for a job waiting tables, or something else? Would she have gotten the job offer if she was the most diligent, fantastic dish washer that ever walked the earth? I suspect not, since she would not have had the opportunity to chit chat with her patron. Unless the patron wanted to know who had washed the tableware with such care and dedication, and demanded the drudge be brought forth out of the galley. I can see the Disney animation now.
I’m also curious how old she was. I suspect in her twenties. How do you think the story would have ended is she were 67 years old? I’m betting the restaurant manager she worked for would have laughed his fool head off if a 67 year old woman had applied to wait tables there, not matter how sublime her waiting skills. Even if she had gotten the job, do your think that patron would have asked a 67 year old recent college graduate waiting tables to come in for an interview?
If your friend had merely been a competant waiter instead of a master of wait-fu, but friendly and chatty, don’t you think she would still have gotten the interview?
A lot of this reminds me of anecdotes people tell about wearing a lucky charm or sending out chain letters. So-and-so wore it waiting tables, and she got an interview offer! So-and-so broke the chain, and no one offered her an interview. I told so-and-so to be the best dang waiter they could, and they won the lottery! So-and-so was only ever a competant waiter — she wouldn’t even put in 10,000 hours or ten years perfecting her table service. Talk about lazy! She got hit by a bus, no surprise. Maybe if she’d spent the last ten years perfecting her footwork around two-tops she would have dodged the bus, but she only spent a few years praticing eight hours a day. I guess she didn’t want it enough.
Can I suggest your next posts in this hypothesis to be based off of Angela Duckworth’s Grit research? Her TED talk is also fascinating. Thanks again for the insights Cal.
I second Zafir’s recommendation. This talk is wonderful and I think you may have mentioned her before. She covers the scope of this new philosophy that you are developing, Cal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaeFnxSfSC4
I second Disquiet’s remark in this thread, and agree with the criticism. I choke on my milk every time I hear about another student who plans to go to law school and “work so hard they cannot be ignored” The fact of the matter is that most of what makes steve martin’s life remarkable has (almost) nothing to do with the painfully narrow, set of circumstances he could control.
I still think other aspects of Cal’s thinking are very valuable particularly the study methods of elite academics, which can be copied, and the negative advice you provide. Dont go to the dark side of the SELF HELP BOOK STYLE of narration!!!
Love this post 🙂 It’s true: if passions chose us, we’d all be firefighters and princesses. Seeing results, knowing results are coming – that’s what makes you more interested and engaged, which in turn makes you more passionate.
Our own interest, as coaches, is in increasing people’s level of passion and enjoyment at work. The same banjo-learning principles can be applied there.
I am tired of the online community and the “hack” everything mentality. Before seeing people being so proud of their hack system I always new of people that were terrible at something while pretending to be good being called a “hack”. To me hack is insulting and I work very hard and diligently in my chosen field to not be considered a hack.
Good post, I hope more people get back to being hardworking passionate individuals. I am afraid for the generations coming up right now. The concept of hard work, focus, and yes, diligence is not in their culture and that is a scary thing.
@tigerjeet Atul Gawande’s Better is the book where his entire Part 1 is called “Diligence”. Great book.
@Greg – I wonder if you can come up with some metrics covering both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ data. For ‘hard’ data, it could be things like # of students attending studies each week, number of chapters read in the Bible by each student, number of passages memorized, number of times they invite unchurched friends or express concern for the spiritual state of their unchurched friends. For ‘soft’ metrics, maybe your subjective sense of the spiritual openness of the kids, sense of the fruits of the Spirit being evident, etc.
I’d also recommend a counter-intuitive book – Patrick Lencioni’s Three Signs of a Miserable Job. The parts of it that I remember (assuming I am remembering the right one of his books) is a guy that takes over a pizza restaurant and as part of fixing the “miserable” environment, comes up with all sorts of metrics for measuring performance and it might help frame your thinking.
It would definitely be something that would require diligence AND deliberate practice. The things you first think might be good proxies for measuring impact in the students’ lives might not be, and it will require diligence to find the “right” proxies, then deliberate practice on your part to find what things you do have the greatest positive impacts on your students. Hope this might help move you in the direction you want to go.
For example, the best waiter- one who focused on being a “great waiter, learned everything about customer service, etc. is not going to earn that much more money or have greater rewards than a bad waiter.”
Oh, this is so not true. A great waiter, who can bond or at least mirror his customers, will earn higher tips by upselling to a larger dollar amount on the check. By consistently bringing in more business, he/she will get the better tables, the better shifts –> producing even more personal income.
Jobs involving people skills may just not be for you
“It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of our homage to the truth.”
– Antonin Sertillanges