This sculpture sits outside the Imig Music Building on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. For a musician the words serve as a direction; “little by little” or “gradually”, as in crescendo poco a poco. But, they also serve as a reminder of how progress is made, how we get better, how we achieve our goals, little by little.
Psychologists like Anders Ericcson and neuroscientists like George Bartzokis and Doug Fields are helping us understand the role of practice in getting really good at something. Ericcson’s work revealed that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in anything. Bartzokis’ and Fields’ work is helping us understand the process of myelinaton and just what happens with the brain during that deliberate practice and why it matters more than what we might think of as “natural ability.”
Becoming great at anything whether it’s the saxophone or soccer, playing the cello or shooting guard is a process. It takes time. It is about having a clear picture of what you want, trying something, paying attention, noticing what works, what doesn’t and then adjusting. Dozens or hundreds or thousands of little fixes to get it closer to what you want until, little by little, poco a poco, you start to get it.
Achieving that high level of performance, or just getting really good at something takes time and effort. Which is why its important to focus on the process more than the outcome. They’re both important. The results tell us what to fix, where to adjust, and if we’re moving in the direction we want. It’s the process though that produces the results.
The good news here is that if you know what you want, you’re willing to do the work and you have the passion and patience to stay with it, time is on your side. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, describes it in terms of a baby learning to walk. He says, “ It’s the feeling, in short, of being a staggering baby, of intently, clumsily lurching toward a goal and toppling over. Its a wobbly, discomfiting sensation that any sensible person would instinctively seek to avoid.” It’s not easy. Run quickly away from anyone who tells you it is. But, if you stay with it, keep adjusting , keep reaching, little by little, poco a poco you can get there.