The Road to Extraordinary

It's paved with problems.

The first is that it takes a long time and a lot of hard work. Call it the 10,000-hour rule, the ten-year rule, whatever. We can't expect to become groundbreaking creative successes overnight.

Ray Bradbury:

The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000...

Stephen King:

When I got my rejection slip… I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]… and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail… By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.

Ten years later, he sold his first novel.

A long time and a lot of hard work, to say nothing of talent or actual skill.

In my style of martial arts, a fifth degree black belt is considered a Master. I've been a fourth degree for two years. Generally speaking, the number of degrees equates to the minimum number of years before you can be promoted. E.g., first to second degree takes two years, second to third takes three years, and so on.

But the jump from fourth to fifth degree is different. You can't just put in the time and make the cut. To be considered a Master, one must demonstrate mastery in every area—not just katas and combinations, but animal techniques, club techniques, knife and gun defense, chin na, grappling, and more. And mastery isn't a quantifiable thing; it's not how many leopard techniques you know, but how you move when you execute them. This means a martial artist can spend a long time at fourth degree. Being promoted to Master is arguably more difficult than achieving the black belt itself.

To attain such expertise, to become extraordinary, one must work very hard for a very long time and become very good.

Fine. That makes sense. If being extraordinary was easy, everyone would do it.

But there is a prerequisite question that must be answered before we can start putting in our 10,000 hours: What do I want to be extraordinary at?

This question leads to the second problem, which is the paradox of choice.

To determine at which profession we wish to excel, we consult our various identities. For me: English professor, yoga teacher, martial arts instructor, bass player, writer. For you: Crossfit trainer, accountant, parent, student affairs professional, recreation director, painter, and so on. We are privileged to be such eclectic individuals, but we are also paralyzed by the diversity of our passions and interests.

I feel that if I want to be the greatest writer I can possibly be, if I want to make a living as a writer, I need to immerse myself completely in my craft. I need to write every day. I need to publish constantly. I need to read other writers. I need to hire an editor. I need to hustle. I need to eat, sleep, and breathe writing. I need to dedicate myself to nothing else for years. And then—maybe—one day, I'll make ten dollars.

I feel that if I want to be the greatest bass player I can possibly be, if I want to make a living as a musician, I need to immerse myself completely in my craft. I need to play every day. I need to seek out other musicians to play with. I need to learn how to read music. I need to write and record songs and put them out there for people to hear. I need to hustle. I need to eat, sleep, and breathe music. I need to dedicate myself to nothing else for years. And then—maybe—one day, I'll make ten dollars.

The problem is that I fear having to give up other aspects of my identity in the hopes of becoming extraordinary at one of them. I love being a bass player just as much as I love writing, and I love doing yoga just as much as I love doing martial arts. There isn't one that I'm willing to give up all the others for.

Yes, of course no one (besides me) is saying I have to give everything else up. Successful extraordinary people have interests other than what they're known for. But when you're trying to break into an industry, when you're on mile one of that 10,000-mile road, I don't see how you can get away with not dedicating yourself almost entirely to your craft.

Beyond this inner conflict lies a third problem, one of practicality: how can I dedicate myself to my art and still afford to eat? No one is going to pay me to be a writer who's trying really hard. No one is going to pay me to be a bass player sitting in the woodshed.

So we get crumby part-time jobs, and if we're lucky, their soul-crushing nature drives us even further to power through that long road to extraordinary. Or, they sap our strength to the point where the dream seems even more impossible.

When you're in college, your full-time job is to be a college student. Your job is to go to class, to learn, to absorb, to meet people, to figure out who you are and what you want to do with rest of your life. This is why college is so great. No one expects anything of you other than that you do what a college student is supposed to do: explore.

Some college students are lucky in that they go to school to get a degree in a certain field, which grants them a job, and they set off on a career. I think mainly of business majors. They get a degree in marketing or accounting or business administration, and they get hired. An entry-level accountant gets paid while they learn how to be a next-level accountant. They achieve a respectable level of success for their age, which allows them to live comfortably, going to work during the day, and using nights and weekends to pursue hobbies, interests, and relationships.

Sometimes, I'm envious.

Now, maybe those people genuinely love marketing, or accounting, or business administration. Maybe there are people out there who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff. I'm sure there is someone out there who is dedicating himself to being an extraordinary accountant, to making it his life's work.

But for those of us in the arts or creative fields, the road to extraordinary is not so smooth. For those of us who want our creative interests and financial living to be one in the same, we must figure out how to do it on our own. We must ask, "What am I going to love doing every day for the rest of my life that other people will pay me to do?" And if and when we can answer that enormous question, we must ask, "How am I going to survive while I put in the seemingly insane amount of time and effort creating that extraordinary life requires?"