When my nephew, Ted, was younger, he decided there was something he really wanted to do, a skill that he was hell-bent on mastering. So he practiced and failed, practiced and failed, and practiced some more, until one day he did it.
He made an armpit fart.
Ted is now in high school, and he has progressed from armpit farts to dirty jokes. (My sister tolerates it, while also having a conversation with him.)
My sister said she watched him practice armpit farts for a year before any sound came out. The only way he was able to push through it was because he had a certain mentality. In his mind he was making an armpit fart, just without the sound. He never said, “I can’t do this”. He just kept working at it and working at it until a noise came out.
My nephew, it seems, was experiencing something called “painful practice”. Jeff Goins writes about this in his new book, The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. In his book Goins describes the three stages to finding your calling: preparation, action, and completion. Painful practice, which he describes as “that hurts”, is an important piece of preparation.
You’ve heard of the 10,000 Hour Rule, right? Well Goins presents an argument in this chapter that practice in and of itself is not enough. What matters is what kind of practice. This is “painful practice”.
“I don’t know where this idea that your calling is supposed to be easy comes from. Rarely do easy and greatness go together. The art of doing hard things requires an uncommon level of dedication. You have to love the work to be able to persevere through those difficult times, those painful moments when you would probably rather quit. How do you do that without an uncanny amount of passion? It’s not possible. You must love the work. Not until you find something you can do to the point of exhaustion, to the extent that you almost hate it but can return to it tomorrow, have you found something worth pursuing.” (68-69)
To give readers an idea of painful practice, he tells the story about when he was a kid and he started playing the saxophone. He quit after six months, because he didn’t think he was good enough at it.
What he didn’t realize at the time was that it didn’t have to do with talent. It had to do with working though the hard parts.
There are times when you’re learning something new and practicing to get better at it, and it’s hard. It’s really hard, and you think, Am I even good at this? You feel like you’re never going to get it. Goins had reached that point when learning the saxaphone. That was the point, Goins learned later, that he had to keep going.
Maybe you’ve felt that way, when you’re alone and you feel like you’re writing in a cave. You think, Is this even worth it? and why do I bother? But it’s only when you pass the point of painful practice do the breakthroughs happen.
The difference between those who make it and those who don’t, Goins writes, are those who persevere through painful practice. It’s not that people only had talent and therefore were able to effortlessly master our skill. It’s that they pushed themselves to the point of pain and discomfort, and then pushed themselves further.
Even when it gets difficult and they’ve failed more times than they succeed, love of the work pushed them through those hard times, those moments of pain. “Love,” Goins writes, “is a much better criterion than lack of difficulty.”
Perfecting the armpit fart was probably not what Goins had in mind when he wrote this book. In fact, he has zero stories about armpit farts (Sorry, if I got your hopes up).
What Ted accomplished isn’t as important as how he accomplished it. He could have gotten discouraged at his own inability at making an arpit fart. He could have gotten frustrated and quit. But he cared enough about what he was doing that the pain didn’t matter. Love what you do, and the pain is nothing.