A few Sundays ago my wife and I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Two special exhibits caught our attention. One was a collection of watercolors by John Singer Sargent; the other, etchings by Rembrandt. The Sargent exhibit contained literally hundreds of his paintings.
Each of us was struck by how ordinary Sargent’s day to day work must have been. Thousands of brushstrokes make a painting; literally millions of strokes must have been displayed in this one exhibit. Sargent’s mastery grew out of literally tens of thousands of hours of work.
Of Sargent’s work habits a friend of his said, “A holiday meant simply a change from the work of the moment to work of another description.” My wife put it this way: “He practiced, he worked.”
Psychologist Anders Ericsson has demonstrated that for all professions it takes literally at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery. Many of us expect extraordinary results without being willing to do the ordinary things that will get us there.
Some want to believe that those who achieve greatness are fundamentally different from the rest of us. Proponents of the “fundamentally different school” of greatness would argue that Sargent was born with an innate gift. While it is true that Sargent had artistic interests even as a child, he had to develop his craft by such ordinary practices as copying images of ships from the Illustrated London News. He made countless drawings of mountains, seascapes, and buildings.
Whether Sargent had an innate gift or not, we can be sure that his gifts would’ve lay fallow had he not put in effort to practice.
Josh Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy and subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, observed, “The moment that we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”
Waitzkin is a student of the work of psychologist Carol Dweck whose pioneering research on fixed and growth mindsets has made her perhaps the most influential of contemporary psychologists. If your views about intelligence are of the fixed mindset, you believe that your abilities are set in stone. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that abilities can be developed over time.
Results matter the most to the person with the fixed mindset; learning how to do better matters the most to a person with a growth mindset. Thus a person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges out of fear of failing. That is why a fixed mindset individual is brittle in the face of adversity—at the first setback they stop trying because to fail would reveal a fundamental flaw about them. Their identity is wrapped up with being an individual who does not have to apply effort to succeed.
A fixed mindset is at the core of many contemporary societal problems.
Many expect extraordinary healthcare on-demand, but they don’t like exercising, and they don’t like shopping and preparing the whole foods necessary to sustain their health. Do they have a fixed mindset about health? Do they believe that some are born with high prospects for good health while others are not? Are they aware that day-by-day ordinary effort on their part can result in good health?
Many college students want a great job, but they also want to drink a few nights a week, and they don’t like studying too much. Are they aware that their ordinary effort applied day-by-day compounds into a happy and fulfilling career?
In all areas of life, ordinary efforts, can lead to extraordinary results. “Don’t waste life in doubts and fears,” advised Emerson. Instead, “spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.”
Notice that although Emerson understood that fears should not be indulged, he didn’t advise that we think positively—he advised that we work.
All across America, at this moment, individuals are doing ordinary things. So many ordinary things are happening that we fail to notice how the extraordinary is created. A farmer may be harvesting the last of the fall apple crop. His distributor may be preparing those apples for distribution as late as next spring. Trucking companies will ship those apples all across the country. All of this and more leads to the extraordinary cornucopia of foods available to us when we shop at our local supermarket. Without the ordinary we would not experience the extraordinary.
Achieving mastery is a door that we can all walk through. We can hear the voice in our head say don’t paint a brushstroke today, don’t exercise today, don’t study today, or don’t love today; but when we recognize that that voice is no friend of ours we have stepped over the threshold and through the doorway to mastery. When we make the choice to stop listening to that very poor counselor, then our ordinary efforts may very well lead to extraordinary outcomes.