The Right Mindset

Have you ever made a resolution for the new year, and failed to follow through on it? Losing weight, getting in shape, learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument — most of us have at one time or another made a promise to ourselves, and by the end of January, have given up on it. It happens to the best of us.

Concepts such as “excellence” and “mastery” are loaded terms, in that they tend to produce unrealistic expectations. The culture bombards us with quick-fix solutions, promising to “solve” your “problem” in five minutes or less. It’s as easy as taking a pill.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, and pardon my French, but that’s bullshit, folks. Things like excellence and mastery are indeed goals worth striving for, but it must be understood that those things are produced by habits, and as such, don’t have a tidy, finite timeline. They shouldn’t take huge amounts of time or ability, but they do require consistency.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that if you do something forĀ about 28 consecutive days (the number varies, usually between 21 and 30 days), it becomes an ingrained habit. This is true for just about anything you set about doing to improve yourself. If you eat less and exercise more, and keep track of your intake and your weight as you go along, you will almost definitely see real results.

On the other hand, if you binge-diet and have a marathon workout session on Saturday, but sit around and gorge on pizza the rest of the week, not only will you not lose weight, but you’ll probably be sore, because your muscles will not be conditioned to be punished once a week. Your body is a machine, and will respond according to how you treat it.

The same goes for your brain, which is where good habits are built and maintained. So it’s important to get in the right frame of mind. The first and most important thing to remember is that, while the ideas can be learned in just a few minutes, and can be maintained in probably 30-45 minutes a day, 4-5 times per week, you still have to do it. Think of it like the game of chess — it takes about ten minutes to learn the rules, but years, even lifetimes to master.

The next thing is to be realistic about your expectations. Most of us are motivated to make the jump from listener to player because we heard someone who inspired us with their talent. It could be speed, precision, musicality, the perfect melody over the perfect chord progression, any or all of those things. I can guarantee you that nobody gets that good overnight. It takes patience, practice, persistence. It takes time.

You have to be willing to give yourself enough time. If you pick up the guitar as a rank beginner on January 1st, you have to understand going into it that you will not be Eddie Van Halen by January 31st. You won’t be EVH by January 31st of the next year. But if you develop consistent practice habits, take it a bite at a time, and work on the right materials with clear, realistic short-term goals, you will see progress, guaranteed.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not as far along as you think you should be at a given moment. Observe your strengths as a player, and work on them, because those are the elements that will be the foundation of your style. Observe also the things you need to improve, and find and develop materials to address them. Use a metronome and track your progress. Then do it all over again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on.

No one is Paul Gilbert or Joe Satriani right out of the box — those players will be the first ones to tell you the same thing. In guitar, just as in the rest of life, persistence beats talent in the long run, every time; in fact, persistence is what it takes to develop talent.

Set realistic short-term goals for yourself, such as learning a new scale in several different positions in a week, or six or eight songs in a month. Some goals you’ll meet right on schedule, some you might come close but not quite “on time.” That’s fine, just finish up and move on to the next goal. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly all those modest goals build into a formidable technique and style.

As always, play hard and have fun!

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