This summer I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do: learn to play guitar. Luckily for me, my husband, a professional music teacher, was on hand when I had questions.
And the musical question is: “What in the world does this have to do with business?”
In a word, PERSEVERENCE. The same principles that apply to learning a new skill also apply to the world of business.
Start Off Small, Start Off Slowly
If you have fingers of steel, you might be able to learn to play the guitar in a day. I could take this analogy further and say you can’t learn to play most instruments in one day, but the extra fun bit about guitars is that the strings are made of steel. You play a chord by contorting your fingers into unfamiliar positions around the neck of the guitar, and then press them very hard against these steel strings. If you’re wishy-washy about it, your music sounds like mush, or as my son likes to innocently comment as he walks by, “Gee, Mom, that’s plunky.” So, when I started I chose the easiest chords I could handle, but still could only practice for 10 minutes at a time because my fingertips were swelling.
Lesson# 1: It’s the same for learning anything new—you can’t possibly absorb all there is to know about web design, coding, giving a business presentation, or being in a leadership position, right away. Give yourself time to absorb new skills in whatever sized chunks work for you.
Keep At It
I didn’t just practice for 10 minutes a day. I practiced until I couldn’t stand it, as many times as I could tolerate it each day. I read up on techniques to build up calluses, and would press edges of a card into my fingertips while I was doing something else (watching a movie, for example) to build calluses even when I wasn’t playing. I wanted results. In my case, it was being able to hold down a solid G chord.
I also asked for help when I needed it from others who played, like my husband, since I wasn’t taking lessons but was teaching myself. And, I practiced every day. (Still do.)
Lesson # 2: It sounds trite, but you will only improve with practice. And don’t just put in the time—go beyond what’s required. Read, ask questions from others who know more than you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Commit to it. Don’t do things halfway.
Know Your Audience and Keep Your Options Open
My brother-in-law has a band and works as a recording engineer. He asked me to bring my guitar for Thanksgiving so that we could play together. This would be my first public appearance! But it was clear as I pulled out the book I’d been practicing from that they were mostly obscure songs. He showed me loads of other songs with the same basic chords I already knew, that OTHER people would know as well and could actually join in on.
Lesson # 3: Don’t specialize to such a degree that you back yourself into a corner. Keep your options open so that you can do more than only one thing. That makes you sought-after.
Build Your Repertoire and Take it to the Next Level
I was pretty amazed a few weeks ago when I went into my old book of songs (yes, the ones that nobody knew) to find that the ones I thought were hopelessly difficult at the beginning were now easy to play. As my hands grew stronger, I could play chords that were previously out of my reach (literally out of my reach). I have even begun to work on bar chords, something that would have been laughable six months ago. Nowadays I find myself saving songs on my iPad so that I don’t really use the notebook much anymore. I use recording technology to slow down the songs to hear the strumming pattern. I look up instructional videos online, and sometimes just pause to look at someone’s hand position. I put on recordings of songs and play along to practice keeping up my tempo. What I don’t do is keep playing the same things over and over again.
Lesson # 4: Keep your work fresh by embracing new technology and ideas. Don’t be afraid to try a new technique or way of working just because you’re used to being safe.
(See No knead for great bread and innovation by my colleague Frank Mendelson.)
Use Your Powers for Good
So you may not be an expert—yet. But you may be able to do a world of good for someone who can appreciate what you do know. In my case, I play guitar for my family, my religious education class, and plan on taking it along to some Girl Scout meetings. There’s a good chance this summer I may even be playing along with other musicians at church. The point is that there’s a bigger world out there beyond my living room.
Lesson # 5: Share what you know and see how you can help others NOW—don’t wait until some magical day when you deem your skills to be perfect. There are nonprofits, clubs, and schools who would love to have a hand making their websites, producing programs and posters for their plays, or helping edit, write, or format their newsletter.
When we think of how the application of guitar practice applies to business, this lesson is clear. Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, said, “You are what you practice most.”
That’s what may differentiate you from the competition.