It’s interesting to watch people react when I tell them I’m learning to play the guitar at age 44. Some folks are excited, but most people say something like: “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I have no talent for music.”
I usually just nod my head and move the conversation along, but what I’m really thinking is, “Talent has nothing to do with it.”
You see, I suck at music. Kim and Kris will tell you that I cannot carry a tune. My rhythmic sense is almost non-existent, which makes it tough for me to keep time. (That’s also why I’m a bad dancer.) I haven’t done anything musical in 25 years — but that hasn’t stopped me from diving into guitar.
There are two reasons I’m willing to tackle this project despite my lack of talent:
- First, I’m no longer afraid of failure. It used to be that fear prevented me from pursuing all sorts of things I wanted to try, even simple things like learning to play an instrument or speak a foreign language. I didn’t want to look like a fool. Today, I don’t care. Do I have a thick American accent when I talk with the shopkeeper in Quito? So what? At least I’m making an effort. Does my rendition of “Amazing Grace” sound like the song was written only in quarter notes? So what? I know that I have to sound bad today to sound good tomorrow.
- Second, I know that successful people are successful because of their effort, not because of their innate ability. For this insight, I have to thank Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers, Gladwell offers numerous examples of people — Bill Gates and The Beatles, for instance — who succeeded not because they were born gifted but because they spent tons of time honing their abilities. Gladwell popularized research that shows it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. That’s a long time.
So, I’m happy to pluck away at the guitar despite a lack of innate talent. The failure doesn’t bother me, and I know that the more time I spend at it, the better I’ll become.
In fact, further reading has revealed that while it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill, it usually takes just 500 hours to become competent. (And then continued practice to maintain the skill.)
I’ve spent about 500 hours learning Spanish. No surprise then that I can carry on a conversation with a native speaker, even if I’m not great at it. I’m only about five hours into my guitar journey, but I hope to reach 500 hours by the end of this year.
The bottom line is this: If you want to learn a new skill, tenacity matters far more than talent. And if you disqualify yourself before you begin because you think talent’s the most important piece of the puzzle, well then you’ll never get good at anything, will you?