This has been an amazing summer. The weather here in Seattle has been nothing short of brilliant. I’m putting the finishing touches on a new premium lesson that will be out soon. I’ve had the chance to spend time with my daughter. All really great stuff. But secretly, one of the highlights of my summer was getting introduced to Formula 1 racing.
A friend of mine got me into it and it was like discovering a long-lost relative I didn’t know I was missing. I’ve been devouring books and magazines on the topic and have even started playing F1 on the Xbox. I never play video games. My wife is completely baffled.
Now let’s be clear here—my fast-twitch video game muscles are severely under-developed. I could hardly play Pac-Mac back in the day and video games have just gotten harder since then. So after purchasing the game I sat down behind the virtual wheel of the most fearsome race cars on the planet and I knew I was in for a challenge.
Sure enough, I was all over the road in a matter of seconds, crashing into barrier after barrier. It was a comical disaster and I was a pathetic driver. At this point I had a choice to make: I could either persevere and try to get better at it or just walk away and say “this isn’t for me”.
I decided to plow forward knowing full-well that there may come a point where I just pick up the steering wheel controller and toss it through the window. So far, that moment hasn’t come. What has happened is that slowly (some my say “glacially”) I’ve developed some skills driving these cars. As I look back on the process of starting from public safety hazard #1 to now having some reasonable command of the car, it got me thinking about the more general process of acquiring physical skills. I think these apply to much more than video games and definitely make sense for learning an instrument (like, oh I don’t know, say, the guitar).
The first ingredient is what Zen-folks call mindfulness. That is, simply being aware of what is going on. In the F1 game, mindfulness applies to things like hitting the right arc in your turns. Am I cutting the turns too shallow or too deep? Am I losing traction in this turn? Could I hit this faster?
As you race by at a virtual 150+ mph, it’s tough to figure out what went wrong when you spin off into the gravel traps. When I sit there trying to get back on the track, yes, I can see that things didn’t go as planned. But the that’s not enough. How did I get here?
There’s a very mean old man that lives next mindfulness named judgment and that guy thinks you’re no good at anything. It’s one thing to say to yourself, “Hmmmm…interesting. I think I turned in too early on that corner” and quite another to let judgment creep in (“you idiot, you missed the turn again!”)
That judgment guy will ruin your day. Don’t let him take over the dialog in your head. Observe without deciding if it’s good or bad. For example in racing the positive observation would be “I hit the inside of that turn which made the second half too sharp”. The judgmental way would focus more on your failures. That way becomes very discouraging, very quickly.
In guitar playing, mindfulness is a key ingredient in tackling all sorts of issues. Imagine tackling a tricky alternate-picking phrase. Are you really alternate-picking all the way through or is your picking hand getting a little sloppy? In the rush to play tricky phrases sometimes the answer is “I don’t know”. If that happens, it’s time to step back and pay attention to what’s going on.
The Next Thing
Once I started paying attention, I quickly had a big list of things I could do to improve my lap times. In the 45 seconds I have to complete ten turns, there’s no way I’m going to remember to do the fifteen new things I just observed. So I did the lap over and over (and over and over) working on one new thing at a time.
The first few laps would focus on hitting the apex of the first turn just right. Sometimes I would plow through it as fast as I could do see if I could stay on the track (nope, that didn’t work). I would try another lap braking hard before the turn (effectively, but slow). Eventually I found the middle technique of feathering the throttle through the turn, just on the edge of traction (win!).
Okay, turn with turn #1 down, let’s look at turn #2…you get the idea.
In guitar playing, when you’re faced with a big challenge the number of things to tackle can simply be overwhelming. Have you ever sat down and tried to learn Eruption? Holy crap, you could spend years on it. That’s a terrifying realization and you may just rather eat a hamburger and watch TV instead.
But taken one teeny-tiny bite at a time you can learn it and even master it. Seriously. Barring any physical disabilities, the only thing you need is an unending supply of awareness, patience and persistence.
Having read up on the art of race driving, one thing that comes up over and over again is the concept of being smooth. Nothing disrupts the traction of a fast-moving vehicle like yanking the wheel quickly, stomping on the brakes or mashing the accelerator. The trick is gracefully transitioning from accelerating to stopping, from turning to straightening out.
In the F1 game, part of getting smooth is having a larger vision of where you’re trying to go. In the training tests, you’re trying to hit lots of intermediate targets (turn apexes, for example), and it’s very easy to get in the mindset of driving from one target to the next. That approach works up to a certain point, but it tends to make the driving pretty choppy as you race to the next goal then react to the track as you’re getting ready for the next one.
Things got much smoother once I stopped driving to the targets and started driving through them instead. This resulted in a much smoother racing line throughout the track and much smoother driving (less pedal mashing, more graceful turns). That made for faster lap times and bigger smiles.
In guitar-playing, “being smooth” is about transitioning from the station-to-station approach to more something more musical. Back to our Eruption example, let’s say you’ve worked out each of the phrases. You’ve been mindful and come up with a good list of things to work on. You steadfastly improved one thing at a time so that you can now play each of these things in isolation.
Fabulous. Gold star for you. Now you need to make it musical by playing it as a single musical statement (albeit one with a lot of words). To do that, think of playing through each phrase. Like the racing lines, your musical “line” will extend much more gracefully when you start envision the whole thing.
There is something very calming about this approach. Things don’t feel like they’re coming at you quite as quickly. This may be what top-notch athletes talk about when they say that the game “slows down” for them. I have a sneaking suspicion that our brain’s sense of time works differently when we’re in this mode.
It’s also what a lot of people would call “flow”. For me, it’s one of the greatest feelings on earth and to be in that state of mind is precious and wonderful thing.
The Finish Line
I’m pretty convinced that most things in life cannot be boiled down into a short list of handy tips. The world is much more complex and nuanced than that. But I think you could do a lot worse than using these ideas to approach a lot of things in life (guitar, cooking, driving).
- One thing at a time
Easy, right? No. It takes a lifetime to master. But what a project!