“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” – Epictetus.
Consider someone who is a good driver; perhaps they have been driving for many years or even for decades. It might be you or someone you know (I’ll assume it’s you for now, but if it’s not then just mentally substitute “you” with “they”). You’ve been driving for so long now that it’s become second nature to you, to the point where you don’t even realise what you are doing, you don’t even appreciate the times when both hands and both feet are all doing something different, eyes watching the road, ears listening to the engine, brain monitoring and thinking about half a dozen different things at once whilst also performing some quite complex mathematics (algebra, geometry, calculus – they all come into play).
And yet it was not always like this – remember those first few very nerve-wracking lessons as you struggled to move the car more than 10 feet without stalling? The moments of panic trying to work out when to change gear then how to change gear without crashing?
When we are young, we don’t even know we can’t drive because we don’t know all the things involved. As far as we are concerned you just push the pedals an waggle the steering wheel (remember pretending to drive as a kid? It was oh so easy, wasn’t it?!)
We grow up a bit and decide to take driving lessons. And we stall, get the gears all wrong, forget the clutch, we haven’t a clue what we are doing! We know there’s a dozen and one things to do simultaneously (we know because our instructor has told us what they are), but we can’t get the hang of any of it.
After more practice and lessons, we reach the point where we can drive, but we have to think about what we are doing and pay attention, such as reminding ourselves when and how to change gear whist still watching the road. We can drive, but it takes a lot of conscious thought and effort on our part.
Until finally we reach the stage where we are steering, changing gear, watching the road AND remembering where we are supposed to be going, all subconsciously without even realising it.
With any activity there are 4 different levels of competence.
The first level is unconscious incompetence – this is where we do’t even know that we can’t do it.
The next level is conscious incompetence – we still can’t do it, but we now know that we can’t do it.
From here, with suitable learning, we attain conscious competence – we know how to do it, although we might sometimes have to think about it for a moment.
Finally, there is unconscious competence – we can do it without even having to think about it. This is true mastery!
When you look at someone doing something well, they make it seem effortless. And for them it may well be effortless (although it is also entirely possible that they are making considerable conscious mental effort, they just do it with such precision and style as to make it appear effortless thanks to all the practice and dedication they put in), but it wasn’t always that way. Even the best musicians on the planet were unable to pick their way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without hitting more wrong notes than a drunken karaoke “singer” at first. But the key thing is that they did not let that stop them; they had set their sights on being a first-class musician, and nothing was going to stop them. They knew what they wanted to be, and they were going to damned well do whatever it took to get there.
Of course, not every child who has had to sit through ghastly piano lessons becomes a maestro. Why not? Because to many the whole thing was ghastly, they had no real interest in it, and so they did not apply themselves (and naturally enough – why invest time and energy in something you don’t like or want to do?)
But equally, no maestro ever stumbled into that sort of expertise without wanting to be it and without doing what was necessary to achieve that level of expertise.
And that is true for pretty much anything in life worth doing. There is a very important, very simple, fundamental two step process behind it all, one which is so simple that it is usually overlooked, but ignoring (or getting it in the wrong order) it is to doom ourselves to never being all we could be in our endeavours.
First you need to decide what it is you actually want to be or do or have.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s amazing how often, in our rush to do something, we forget to figure out what it is we want to do. This means, of course, that when we do start doing something, it is not focused, and so our energies are wasted and we can all too quickly become demoralised and give up. So it is essential that we decide what, explicitly, it is that we want to achieve.
Step two is then to figure out what we need to do to achieve this, and to set about doing it.
Again, it sounds simple enough, but once again it is amazing how often we rush into doing things without first of all establishing what it is we need to do.
Think back to driving. First we decided that we wanted to be able to drive a car. That was a specific thing we wanted to do; a definite, clear, unambiguous and measurable task. We didn’t just say “I want to be able to get around”. We explicitly decided “I want to be able to drive a car”.
Then, having decided what we wanted to do, we didn’t just jump in a car and hope for the best, or sit with people who could drive and hope that by hanging out with other drivers we would develop the ability to drive via osmosis. No, we actively sought out someone who could teach us how to drive, and we practised until we reached our desired level of competence. Nor did we give up in the early days after stalling for the third time in one lesson. We knew what we wanted to do, we knew what we had to do to achieve it, and we resolutely set about doing what was necessary including plenty of practice as well as learning, practicing over and over and over again until we really got it.
So it is with everything in life.
First we need to become clear on what, specifically, it is that we want to do.
Then we have to find out what we need to do in order to achieve this, and then actually do it, sticking to it no matter how hard it gets as we progress from unconscious incompetence through to true maser at unconscious competence.
Decide what you want to do, find out what you need to do to achieve it, then do it.
So what do you want to do? Right now? What is that something, perhaps lurking at the back of your mind, that you really want to achieve? Write it down. Yes, write it right now – you want to do it, so why not write it down?
Now, find out what you need to do, what you need to learn, in order to become a maser (an why would you want to waste your time being anything less?).
And then go out and do just that. You are on the path which, with enough dedication on your part, will lead you to mastery. If you truly want to achieve it.