The Art of Being Exceptional

There are two types of guitar players – ones who show ridiculous progress and others who succumb to the same old habits and sit in their comfort zone for decades. The latter claim to practice more but just keep running in circles until they eventually surrender to a belief of it being difficult, and give up completely; or the worst case – the guitar stays put in a corner collecting dust and mites and is taken out at the once in a blue moon occasion with a glamorous glaze and a very proud fascist grin of someone once being a thorough, democratic, a veteran, a know-it-all musician, who gave up trying to be a guitar player in pursuit of something better, more accessible.

However, this is not the issue.

You can still be a great musician with a full-time job and don’t necessarily need to compromise with either.

We look for a mere shortcut – a one-time pass to venture into the celebrated world of the elites. No one is to blame, as it is an essential human nature; to have a certain level of narcissism is indeed healthy. But the duality lies in the ignorance behind our claims and methods – to some of us what I like to call the ‘Generation Headline’.

A prime subscriber to this ideology, I formed undulating opinions on merely the headline. Few of us indulge in the mundane and sub-cutaneous art of reading through the text and also in between the lines.

Why? Because our systems value laziness over active participation. It is evolutionary, a survival instinct to sit and laze around, when all of our essential needs are easily met. Entertainment, food and dopamine are just a click away, why would anyone want to venture down a pit hole of failures and hardships?

This is what separates us from the cream – the preparation. Most of the time, it is so miscalculated and misjudged that any amount of donkeywork is deemed a worthy act of praise and reward. True indeed for a certain context, but proper preparation is the key to unlocking a promising prospect.

Failing to prepare is preparing for failure, and not in the canonical way when failures work as successes.

There is only one way somebody can be so good at a skill. Of course, the human race values natural talent more than sheer dumb iterations and devotion, as we like to find excuses to build a self-projected explanation to make us feel good and get over failures rather than accept the fault and learn.

We don’t want to prepare. The abhorrent undervalue of the amount of preparation it demands for an exceptional ability is perplexing. How can something so innately analytical and a mere supposition of logic be drawn to such a blatant and inflated belief?

There is only one way of getting ‘so good that they can’t ignore you’ at a skill – preparation with a direction. How do you think Michael Jordan, Arijit Singh, A.R. Rahman, and the lots turned into legends? What separates them from the rest of us, is it natural talent, luck, or just a dumbed-out prerequisite of being in the right place at the right time?

It could be a healthy mixture of all three, but as Mr Ravikant says, networking is overrated. Once you build something great, your network ensues, and you don’t have to go out, talk, pretend and try to hold a conversation while holding a glass in your hand, wasting precious time looking to just build a relationship. Now we are not cordoning this essential off to the side, but there is something inherently important around which everything is built – your skill, or the product you have.

Natural talent is overrated, you may be born with a swimmer’s body but to be a Phelps you need to devote your life to it, there is no way around it other than the beginners’ luck or just a random opportunity.

What truly separates the geniuses and over-achievers is the sheer amount of work they put into their craft.

The last book I read, was Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck, which put it all into perspective. In this brilliant book, Dr Dweck insists on the importance of hard work and preparation, and the essence of the growth mindset which is the cornerstone for a successful foundation.

It should rather be considered a default state of being, like how the Japanese work. They excelled in everything, from rebuilding their nation from multiple nuclear tragedies and limited resources to a superpower that is synonymous with quality; a Yoshihiro Mizuyaki Honyaki Mirror Finish Knife can fetch around 6,000$!

The power of believing that you can improve

There are possibly two kinds of people that emerge out of this situation.

One is the stereotypical uncle who hangs around the tapri, plays cards and ludo all day, and what brings meaning to his life is the kick of interfering with other people’s business. The other is one whose meaning relies on the excellence of his product and work ethic. In the longer run, it doesn’t matter what or who we end up as, because sooner or later we are all going to die and the civilisation as we know it shall collapse. (We are already in the sixth great mass extinction and nature will build itself all over again, but we are really in trouble.)

Some people have found joy in doing their menial 9 to 5, they wait in queues to get their hands on the latest iPhone and a lot of us are excited about Myntra’s ‘once in a lifetime’ sale or whatever, and it is okay as well. There are no right answers. But if there is even a tender spark or a feeling that there is a higher purpose in your life, then waiting and sitting around the bush expecting jigsaws to fall into places is a ludicrous and fallible policy.

The first question one should ever ask is –

‘Do I really want this’,
‘Do I really want to be a musician’,
‘Do I really want to be a footballer’;

These are very fundamental, intrinsic questions. But you need to think about the answer because the outcome will be defined by your intentions alone.

If the answer is a staggering yes then the only probability is devotion. You have to get your head in the game, learn and master the fundamentals, make a curriculum for yourself, create measurable parameters, define checks and processes to ensure you are on the right track, make attainable and realistic goals, and truly fine-tune a vision and do your best to materialise it. Otherwise, there is no point.

Well, there is a point after all. This could also be a part of your process that you have to go through a hundred different experiences before you finally conclude that following passion is stupid advice and all you ever needed to do was to just choose a thing that abides with your aptitude and stick to it. That is it.

Narayana Murthy got into shallow waters when he said that youngsters should be ready to devote 70 hours a week. He faced a horrendous backlash from the exhausted, overworked and stressed-out corporate community of the country, even so, that it damaged his integrity and image as a whole. What Mr. Murthy said holds in some essence but it is also a disgraceful remark in the other realm.

If you are wholly passionate about climbing the corporate ladder and you love the challenge, discomfort, stress and eventual rewards, then even 120 hours a week would feel like a walk in the park. Remember the part about motivations, because this is what you want to do, and if being in a suit, a tie, in a maze of cubicles, trying to build the next genre-defying product is your muse and you love it, then absolutely.

Also, if you are a serious artist, practising for 6 hours every day should be a norm – a requisite metaphorical sacrifice to the gods. For a true artist, of course, the redundant, repetitive stuff is numbing and one has to literally pull themselves out of bed to do it, but once the momentum builds up, half a day has gone by when your fingers start to ache and burn, and you know how it feels at the end of the run.

On the other hand, if you are stuck in a dead-end job and you are trying especially hard to bring yourself to work and it is taking a toll on your physical and mental well-being, then maybe you need to take a break, think and ask yourself the same fundamental questions. What am I doing? And disregard what Mr. Murthy has to say, and take that in the light of your own life’s calling.

I don’t mind that 70% of my day goes into things related to music and arts. It includes practice, listening, learning, playing, experimenting, making enormous mistakes, daydreaming, but I love it. This is how I would like to spend the rest of my life.

For the meta thinkers, you are not choosing your work, you are essentially choosing a lifestyle. Music to me has never been a job or something that I have to do, it is a lifestyle choice that keeps me sane. And for the ideal lifestyle to materialise, I have no choice but to sit and prepare for whatever is coming.

Here is a personal story. Recently I played a gig in the noisiest of places, with an instrument that I am only getting familiar with, an entirely new set and personality – the perfect set-up for a nightmare. This is a rather bold move for someone who has spent a decade performing acoustic music in intimate, sit-down situations where people have to turn their phones to silent, and to this absolute nightmare for the sensitive and ultra-max-pro fragile soul like me.

But this time my primary focus was on how well could I perform my set in the harshest of conditions. I practised the set for a month, two to three times each day, and when it was show time, my instincts took over and it was sheer muscle memory that carried me through the show.

It was one of the proudest moments for me as a musician – that regardless of the most unfavourable conditions I managed to pull off a show where people connected and actually had a good time. And I believe all the credit goes to the work I put behind the scenes, the preparation that I put myself through.

I have realised that it is not about my natural talent or my incredible skills of spontaneity but it is all about the amount of preparation I put into my work.

A podcast episode of the show The Game w/ Alex Hormozi puts everything into perspective. If you can, I highly recommend listening to this one, it could change a lot of things.

This year marks half a decade of teaching creativity for me. The most essential thing I have realised over this astonishing amount of time is that anyone can do anything given if they put their heart and soul into it. I truly believe it. Modern science swears by neuroplasticity even at the ages of 50 and above.

Age is just a vanity number.

I will leave you with this –

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.”

Chinese Proverb

If you want to take things to the next level and want to upgrade out of this plateau, then learn the essence of preparation and get comfortable with discomfort. I wish you all the best in your endeavours.

If you are facing any troubles related to mindset, e.g., you find it hard to stay disciplined and fail to realise goals, etc, then I highly recommend the one-on-one mentorship program, the Artist Development Program.

Ciao, and see you in the next.


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