While My Guitar Gently Teaches
Three keys to learning a new skill
I had tried to learn how to play the guitar three times in my life. Each time I started with the fervor of a new year's resolution, and each time I had failed. The learning curve felt too steep, and I would give up before I became good enough for it to be enjoyable. Then Covid lockdowns happened, I dusted off the guitar for a fourth attempt. This time I succeeded. I am no Mark Knopfler, but I play well enough for people around me to not leave the room. And that's good enough for me. So what was different this time around? Before laying out my three key takeaways on learning any new skill, a little back story will help.
Two months into the Covid lockdown, living in a small apartment in New York, my wife and I were running out of options to keep my 7-year old son entertained. We did our best to pretend that remote school'ing was just fine and took daily walks to the East River. One evening before bedtime, I took out my Seagull acoustic guitar and started strumming randomly. My son was instantly curious and promptly joined me. I looked up a website that listed guitar chords and played a couple of simple nursery rhymes. I had not seen my son so engaged in any activity that day, as he was for those twenty minutes.
The next day we did the same routine, this time my wife joined our jam session, and it turned into a daily bedtime ritual. Within a few weeks I was playing simple English and Hindi pop songs. When I figured out one of my favorite songs "Wish you were here" by Pink Floyd, it was a personal milestone. It's been almost three years since the lockdowns, and til date playing guitar before bedtime continues to be a cherished family ritual.
Why was this attempt to learn the guitar successful, while three previous attempts had failed? Here are my three takeaways that could be applied to learning any new skill:
#1 - "Set the bar low"
This time, I did not set out to master Stairway to Heaven right away. I was not aiming for mastery, but for extremely small 'wins' that I knew were within reach. I was happy playing "Baby Shark", and so was my son. Before I realized it, the bar kept being raised organically by small increments. I was stretching myself a little bit at a time over multiple sessions, rather than taking on too much at once.
#2 - "Do it every day"
Daily repetition is the bedrock for developing a new skill - anybody who's good at what they do will vouch for it. While this seems too obvious, the insight I gained was that the quantum of time spent daily is not that relevant. Practicing for a few minutes daily is far more effective compared to practicing for longer durations only 1-2 times a week. The mind comes up with a million excuses to avoid discomfort, and a daily routine (in combination with setting the bar low) short-circuits the temptation to discontinue. Because once you stop, it's much harder to get back in the saddle.
#3 - "Do it for someone else"
In my earlier failed attempts, I was driven by the motivation to "become a good guitar player". Nothing inherently wrong with it, but the reward was too self-centered and in the end not worth dealing with the pain that comes with the process. In contrast, my successful attempt was motivated by my desire to "keep my son engaged" for his well being. It felt like a disproportionately high reward for minimal effort on my part strumming a few simple songs every evening. The shift in mindset from 'selfish' to 'unselfish' made all the difference in the end. Tip: "Doing it for someone else" could easily be applied at work as well - the "someone else" could be one's team, company or community.
If you have been wanting to pick up a new skill, try these three approaches, and let me know how you fare.
If you are interested in learning to play the guitar, or it's easier cousin the ukulele, these two apps are a must: Guitar Tuna to tune your app without any additional hardware, and Ultimate Guitar Tabs for an impressive chords+lyrics library.
AROUND THE WEB
Some of the learning ideas in this newsletter can be traced to this book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.
"Rooted in the two thousand-year-old wisdom of the Tao Te Ching--"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"--Kaizen is the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady increments."
It's an easy read with a lot of examples and stories. I highly recommend it.
This newsletter was designed by Kanika Tibrewala.