Learning As Professional Work

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Tutors get a bad rap.

To clarify: as a profession, they are thought of fine enough; it’s the need of a tutor’s services that gets viewed in a negative light. Regardless of the subject matter, the hiring of a tutor is often seen as a sign that something is wrong with the way things are and steps are being taken to get those things where they need to be. When it comes to learning something with the help of a tutor, it is almost universally understood in a remedial way. Nobody hears a parent talk of hiring a reading tutor for their child and thinks, “That kid’s on the path to going from being a good reader to a great one!” (Private coaching in youth sports, on the other hand, is fast becoming all about “getting a competitive edge.”)

It is a shame that being committed to learning and improvement in any arena should be viewed negatively.

My mind is on this today after hearing for the first time the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist for heavy metal legend Metallica. Now, I’m no expert on heavy metal music, but even I am familiar with the opening guitar riff that not only opens one of Metallica’s greatest hits, “Enter Sandman” — it was named one of the 20 greatest opening guitar intros of all time.

The story, as retold by author Ryan Holiday in his latest book Ego Is the Enemy and on his latest appearance with Ryan Hawk on The Learning Leader Showis one of quintessential professionalism. In the early 1980’s, Hammett got handed the opportunity to join Metallica after the then up-and-coming band had summarily tossed their lead guitarist. Hammett, already a professional guitarist at the time with a group named Exodus, then did something surprising after having gotten his “big break.”

He hired a guitar tutor.

For the next two years, Hammett paid a visit to his tutor every week and did as he was told: he worked on growing his understanding of music theory, melody and harmony structures, and even the basics of playing scales over and over. While it certainly didn’t hurt that the tutor Hammett hired was Joe Satriani – a guitar legend of his own – the key was Hammett’s approach to his craft. He didn’t relegate learning as something you do in the hopes of becoming a professional, at which point you’ve arrived and focus on just doing what you’ve learned. Instead, he sought out a guide from whom he could learn even more and paired it with a willingness to do the work of learning because he was a professional.

Hammett’s story is reminiscent of so many of the themes throughout Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro, but it reminds me of one quote in particular. Pressfield quotes from the memoir of Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny, and a singer/songwriter in her own right), Composed. In the quoted section, Cash describes the moment she “turned pro” and began taking her craft seriously thanks in large part to a piece of advice given to her by singer Linda Ronstadt:

Refine your skills to support your instincts.

There is so much wisdom packed into those simple seven words.

  1. The answer is not in simply “following your passion.” This bit of cliched pabulum is “terrible advice.”
  2. The difference between “passion” — a powerful feeling or emotion — and “instinct” — a natural impulse, aptitude, or intuitive power — is more than just semantics. One is worth following, and the other is worth applying.
  3. Skills are required. Skills.
  4. Merely having skills is insufficient. They must be refined … through work, effort, and often fire … to remove the impurities from the skills, leaving behind something perhaps smaller in mass but purer in substance.

As Pressfield puts it:

We’re all nothing without the Muse. But the pro has learned that the goddess prizes labor and dedication beyond any theatrical seeking of her favors. The professional does not wait for inspiration; he acts in anticipation of it. He knows that when the Muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.

Follow Instinct – bring the Passion.

Show up – butt in the chair.

Practice your scales – then earn the right to go out and shred the National Anthem.