Working Very Hard (Zen parable)
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
For many, the lesson to be learned from this story is obvious. But to those who may not quite see it, let’s unpack it a bit. The teacher informed the student that if he did what he was supposed to do, which was to follow and absorb his teachings to the fullest extent, or in a modern educational context, master his curriculum, “Ten years” would be how long it would take the student to move through his program, receiving his metaphorical degree in this martial system, along with accompanying skill sets. However, the student did not have the patience to devote this amount of time to learning the system, so he began to inquire about shortcuts, which the teacher explained would end up taking him twice as long.
This story really struck a chord with me, because while I was a student at Berklee, back in the eighties, I encountered many students such as the one in this story. I knew many who spent more time trying to figure out how to keep from practicing than it would have taken them to practice the material at hand.
I once had a roommate named Mark who was impressed with how fast I grew in one semester, so I explained to him that I accomplished this by practicing vocabulary building. I would take one lick or ii-V pattern and practice that one idea through all 12 keys for an entire week until I had thoroughly absorbed it. Then, after I felt like I really had full command of it, I would practice playing it on different tunes. Once I felt comfortable with this, I would start the process over the next week with a different pattern.
After hearing my story, he became inspired to do the same thing. However, my process sounded too slow for him, so he decided to speed up things up a bit, and work on two to three pages of licks at a time. He was also playing catch up because now that he was competing with me, he felt like he was behind. At one point, his obsession with speeding up the process became almost comical. He would sometimes show up at jam sessions with his folder of ii-V patterns and would read them as a part of his improvisation. I wish I was joking!
Long story short: He did not improve. He did not “catch up” with me. He eventually dropped out and stopped playing music altogether.
But Mark’s story is a similar one. I’ve seen it in musicians on a macro-level from trying to rush their careers, to micro-levels in rushing the learning process of material they are trying to absorb. And it always ends up with them having to go back to the drawing board to start over again. I call it the groundhogs day effect. Where every day is like starting from scratch.
The lesson of the “Working Very Hard” parable is one that most of us struggle with over a lifetime. There’s really only one remedy: Enjoy the process. Focus on the here and now, not the end result. Approach it as though there is no end, only the journey. And you’ll be amazed at how fast you get there.