For some reason, most of us are born with a faulty understanding of excellence. We think that if we’re going to be really good at something it should come naturally. We should be able to sing, play an instrument, go pro in our favorite sport, and we should be able to do it without any effort at all.
That’s because most of us experience the final product. We go to a concert and see our favorite guitar player shred their instrument for an ear-splitting hour concert. We go to a jazz concert and see a world-famous pianist seemingly make up the song right in front of us. We see a professional basketball player shoot three-point shots without any effort and we say we could do that.
No, we can’t.
In fact, we can’t play the piano, guitar, basketball, write, shoot videos, workout, play golf, tennis, chess, sing, or anything else we say we want to do because we’ve all been taken in by the popular myth that if you’re good at something, it should just come naturally.
What we don’t understand is how many hours — how many years — each of these individuals has put into the perfection of the craft. Malcolm Gladwell suggested it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. I’m beginning to think he underestimated what it takes. When I talk to some Nashville musicians and mention Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, they’ll wince and say, “More like your whole life. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else.”
Getting good at something takes our whole lives. Getting good at ANYTHING takes our whole lives.
Nothing comes naturally. Think about it. Human beings are helpless when they are born. We can’t feed ourselves, clothe ourselves or protect ourselves in any way. Without loving care, human babies die. We have to learn everything about what it means to be human. We have to learn to walk, talk, think, pay attention, eat, and go to the bathroom. Nothing can be overlooked. Everything has to be learned.
Learning means practice and practice means failure. We try to walk, and then, we fall down. We get up again and walk until we fall down again. Success in walking means extending the time between our falls.
That’s it, isn’t it? Success is extending the time between our falls.
This is why most of us never get better at things that are important to us. We see failure as defeat. We try. We fail. Then, we give up. We take piano lessons, and when we start sounding clumsy in the fingering exercises, we say we don’t have the gift for music, and we quit trying. The old saying is right. No one is defeated until they quit trying.
This wouldn’t be so bad if we were just talking about hobbies, but in reality, we’re talking about everything in our lives.
Remember, human beings are born having to learn EVERYTHING. If we have to learn everything and if we want to get better at life, it’s going to take a lot of practice.
That means we have to learn how to be married. No one is born knowing how to be married. You go into a marriage with the best information you have, and after that, it’s trial and error. Does this work? No? Then let’s try something else. Eventually, after forty years or so (Jeannie and I recently celebrated our forty-first anniversary), you begin to figure some things out. What no one tells you when you get married is that you figure things out by first doing them wrong. Failure is part of it.
We have to learn how to be a disciple. While there may not be a wrong way to pray, there certainly is a best way to pray for each of us. Each of us has different ways of expressing ourselves. Each of us has a particular learning style. When we’re first learning how to follow Christ, we copy what we see in other people. Sometimes these things work and other times they don’t. When we’re new in the faith and something doesn’t work, we assume we’re not any good at it. We quit. Worse, we’ll say we don’t have the spiritual gift of prayer or Bible study.
There is no spiritual gift of prayer. Prayer is the divine conversation that occurs between every child and the Father. Prayer will be as unique as you are. Just because a particular spiritual practice doesn’t work for us doesn’t mean we’re not good at praying. It just means we’re not comfortable with this or that spiritual practice. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed at it.
Honestly, this was a hard lesson for me to learn. As a young man, I wanted to know Jesus as fully as I could. I talked to spiritual counselors and guides, all of whom had a particular style of praying. When I didn’t respond to their styles, I was told I wasn’t deep enough in my theology or my spirituality.
That’s not true at all. I just didn’t like the way they did it. Yes, I failed, but failure is part of it. I learned a lot because, every time I practiced, I would push my efforts to failure. Then, I would understand a lot more about me, what prayer was, and what spiritual practices worked for me.
If I had said, after one of my many failures, that I didn’t have the gift for marriage, Jeannie and I wouldn’t have been married longer than the weekend following our wedding ceremony.
If I had given up after my first bad sermon (notice I said “first” not last bad sermon), I wouldn’t have survived the ministry.
Everything takes practice. Practice means failure. Success means extending the time between the failures.
And we’re not defeated unless we stop trying.