Ambition, Talent, and Plain Hard Work

talent-is-overratedPeople tend to get quite uneasy at the mention of the word ambition in context of discussions about career, calling, vocation.  The classic stereotype is the self-centered man or woman who claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder stepping on anybody and everybody who happens to be perched on the rungs below–and in their way.  Ego, indifference to time-honored virtues, and bullying are all.

This is unfortunate.  Frankly, ambition has gotten a bad rap.  In fact, without it you will not hit any of your goals, whether personal and professional.

Last year, some friends and I discussed healthy ambition and its importance.. We focused on moving up in one’s career and becoming the best in one’s chosen field.  There is cost, effort, and sacrifice expended to make this happen.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The pursuit of a highly valued station of influence and achievement takes patience, focus and a lot of hard work.  Those who take shortcuts are cheating themselves and are usually found out.

In his fascinating book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin–Senior Editor-At-Large of Fortune magazine shatters a number of myths about “natural” talent, genius and how pros become such.  These are usually echoed in statements like this: “Well, Tiger Woods was born to play golf.  He’s a natural.”

Here’s something you may not know. Tiger Woods and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both had fathers who started them on the paths of golf and music from infancy.  Earl Woods had a putter in Tiger’s hands before he was a year old.  Leopold Mozart was an established musician and composer before his son was born.  He set Wolfgang on a very focused and intense vocation in musical performance and composition from childhood.  Neither Tiger Woods nor W. A. Mozart were geniuses in common parlance and legend.  They spent many years mastering their crafts.

Peak performers in any discipline acquire that position through untold hours of deliberate practice.  Not just practice, but focused periods of review and goal setting with specific objectives in mind.  When Tiger Woods goes to the driving range, he doesn’t simply pull out a driver and see how far he can hit the ball.  Instead he might take a five iron out and practice hitting the ball not more than sixty-five yards.  There is much more intense energy and concentration that attends deliberate practice.

Here are some steps that are crucial for you to rise to the top of your calling:

  • You must be a lifelong learner.  This means college, vocational school, online seminars, or training at the feet of a master whether a cabinet-maker or a jazz pianist.  It will cost time, discipline, sacrifice, and money.  Make the investment.
  • Saying yes also means saying no.  Getting to the top of the classical guitar world meant that a teenage Christopher Parkening was unable to play baseball with his pals as much as he’d like to have done.  His father, Duke, had him executing deliberate practice from the age of eleven.  Up at 5:00 AM to practice before school.  More practice when school was over.  Choosing mastery in an enterprise means you will not be able to say yes to lots of other pursuits simply because of the time and focus it takes to excel in your chosen field.
  • You must move past the drudgery curve.  A woman once told the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, “You are a genius.”  His reply: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”  The driving range, the woodshop, the music room are not glamorous environments but it is in such places, over long hours, that one becomes a master.

When asked about his remarkable success as an inventor, Thomas Edison–who only had a third-grade education–remarked, “It’s plain hard work that does it.”


The world is looking for individuals who are outstanding at what they do.  Mediocrity, for such as these, grates against every instinct inside them.  You are called to such excellence. The sky is the limit.  Focus and move forward.

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Taking Charge

Taking ChargeThe opening chapter of Jack Canfield’s remarkable book, The Success Principles, has this challenging title: “Take 100% Responsibility For Your Life.”

The chapter is worth the price of the book.  Easy.  It is slowly but surely changing my life.  The concept will radically alter your destiny if you embrace it and practice it.    And great mentors talk about this as the fundamental step that will reinvent your life.  Jack Canfield.  Stephen R. Covey.  Brian Tracy.  All attest the same.

100% responsibility.

Think about it.  Aside from obvious things over which we have no control (planes crashing into our house, forms of disease, tornadoes, and such), we really have the marvelous opportunity and ability to craft a life.

To do this, you must become a good swimmer.  Why?  Because the current of our society flows against personal responsibility.  It has strong undertows of victimization, blame-shifting and an unrealistic sense of entitlement.  And it has kept leaders from emerging.  You must swim against it.  And you are well able to do it.

I heard Brian Tracy say today that assuming complete responsibility for our lives is the mark of adulthood.  It means being a grown-up.  As kids we long for that moment.  Now, we can maximize all the possibilities.

Here are some challenges for the next year:

  • Every day embrace the reality that you have the God-given ability to better your life and circumstances in some wayViktor Frankl learned this in Hitler’s death camps.  He realized that the Nazis had no power whatsoever over his thinking and inner life.  Unless he gave it to them.
  • Every day work to improve your skills of attention, concentration and laser-like focus for whatever task you happen to be doing.  Be all there.  Be fully in the moment.  If it isn’t worth doing with all your being, is it worth doing at all?
  • Write down your goals.  There’s something about putting pen to paper that sets a course in motion within you towards the fulfillment of those goals.  Your subconscious mind engineers reasons and plans for achieving what you’ve set as a target.  Dream it, write it and be very specific.  And then work your plan.

This is your time.  Hold nothing back.

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Looking At Or Seeing?

I’m learning that to look into the eyes of another human being is not necessarily the same thing as seeing them.  I think the eyes are the most beautiful feature of any human being.  Because when I look into someone’s eyes, I get a glimpse into their soul.

Sometimes I see hope.

Sometimes I see mischief.

Sometimes I see pain.

Sometimes profound goodness.

Often, I see someone whose soul seems to communicate this question: “Do you see me?”

Over the years I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of people.  Perhaps the most complimentary thing I’ve ever heard is when someone remarks thus, “When he is with you, it’s as if you’re the only person on earth.”  Complete focus.  Courtesy.  Eschewing superficiality, manifested in canned replies and hollow laughter.  Undistracted.

Someone has said that one of the most profound expressions of love you can give to another human being is to pay attention to them.

Are you seeing those around you?

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The Laser-Like Power of Focus

One of the very early goals President John F. Kennedy set before the eyes of our nation in 1961 was to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.

Our nation, led by a brilliant team at NASA, rose to meet this challenge.  On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface and uttered these famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The secret to NASA’s success? Unity and focus.

Diffused light will light a room and help you see things.  It might even make you feel warm.

A laser—which is focused light—can cut through steel.

I am stunned by the accomplishments of human beings of every stripe who unify, focus and stick to a task, gathering all of their energies toward one important end.  Moveable type.  Flight.  Space exploration.  Atomic fission.  Civil rights.  The list is endless.

In Genesis 11, the Bible tells the story of a group of people who gathered in Mesopotamia and began building an ancient stairway to heaven—the Tower of Babel.  It was quite a focused effort.

And it got the attention of God.  God.

God said, “”Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

Did you notice the last sentence?

“And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

God interrupted the building of the Tower.  But that is not the point of this post.  God Himself took note of a people, unified in purpose and what they could accomplish together.  There’s really no evidence that these people were in covenant relationship with God.  Indeed it seems to be this lack of a relationship with Him that prompted Him to break up the party.  Because “nothing…will now be impossible for them.”

If ordinary human beings, who did not appear to be seeking the God of Adam, Enoch and Noah could accomplish such things, what about people who love Him and want to accomplish His purposes?  Dreams and visions He’s put in their hearts?  “Impossible” tasks? (That’s what they said about flight before the Wright brothers lifted off.)

You have incredible potential as you concentrate, focus and rise up to meet challenges.  What’s your target?  End cancer?  Defeat world hunger by developing new food strains?  Increase world literacy?  Make every published work known to man available in any language in e-book form (the vision of CEO Jeff Bezos)? Fulfil the Great Commission one life at a time?  Go.  Focus.

You will be amazed.

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Vying For A Place With Vai

In a month I will be playing guitars in the pit band for a local production of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”  It is a comedy with music and lyrics written by the Grammy Award winning team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.  Musically it is a combination of Sha-Na-Na meets Billy Joel meets Funk-A-Delic meets The Knack.  It is a hilarious story.

Playing in these shows is always a challenge.  I read music and that has helped me get these roles, which are a privilege.  I get to work with outstanding musicians.

Today I spent hours going through the score—a piano reduction—and the guitar lead sheets, learning parts and rhythms.  It puts one through the paces to be sure.

This music is challenging and multi-faceted.   Most Broadway music is.  It calls for focus and discipline, something I have to work at every day.  As I read through the musical today, I thought a lot about guitarist Steve Vai and his unbelievable work ethic regarding his art.

Steve used to divide his days up into twelve hours for guitar practice.  He may still be doing so.  Three hours for scales and modes, three hours for other things, and so forth.  If you’ve ever seen or heard Steve play, he is an extreme guitarist.  He does things most guitarists wouldn’t dare attempt.  His chops are precise, fluid and varied.  His execution of musical passages flawless.  His tones exotic, to say the least.

Vai’s genius, like Mozart and Tiger Woods, is rooted in deliberate practice.  Focus.  Distractions eliminated strategically.

He’s a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, so he knows music.  When he was breaking into the business over thirty years ago, he would transcribe the music and guitar solos of Frank Zappa—a musical genius in his own right.  And these transcriptions, of all parts in the songs, were written not as tablature (tabs) but as music proper.  That is an incredible feat in itself.  He eventually gave them to Zappa and worked with him.  The video below shows Steve playing and sharing about focus and practice.

Once again we are reminded that the key to mastery of any thing to which we aspire is time, focus and discipline.  Christopher Parkening, classical guitar virtuoso, once said, “You will always pay the full price for excellence.  It is never discounted.”

What things are you good and gifted at?  What kinds of changes can you make in their practice to take your skills to the level of virtuosity?  Are you up to the challenge?

I bet you are.

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