I'm just going to be up-front on this one. I don't believe in prodigies. In fact, I'm not 100% sure that one person can innately have more talent than another. I think our ability to create and create well is entirely up to the experience we've accumulated for ourselves.
Wait a second, Milo, you say. You mean to tell me that my singer friend that sounds so amazing isn't better than I am? What about my piano-playing buddy that can just hear a melody and play it?
Well, obviously, no. Lots of people have talents that they can use to accomplish things more quickly or with greater quality. But what I'm getting at is that there isn't some gene for recognizing musical intervals that your parents didn't give to you, or that there is some genetic marker for why your engineer friend with golden ears can recognize specific frequencies way more accurately than you can.
You've probably heard the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something - that if you really want to be good, you have to put in the time. But how long does it take to work on something for 10,000 hours? If you work at your craft for four hours a day, five days a week, it will take you ten years! And I've heard tweaks to this theory, that it takes 10,000 hours of focused, directed practice specifically learning things you don't already know or can't already do. And that makes it even more challenging.
First off, that's daunting. You mean I can't be good at something until I make it a huge priority consistently for ten years?
Second, how does one even begin with something like this?
Making It Simple
I want to make the case for consistently putting in time. Don't think of it as 10,000-hours-or-bust. Instead, think of it as four hours, or one hour, or whatever time you have today. Big habits start small.
You know what you wish you were better at: you want to be a better songwriter? Then write more songs. You want to be a better producer? Then create more tracks. You already know what you want to be good at, and you already know the truth of what you need to do to get better. It's just a matter of choosing to start small, start today, instead of waiting for some magical moment in the future. That moment won't come on its own, so choose to make it happen today.
Focus on the Right Things
I love listening to production podcasts and songwriting podcasts, reading tips on forums, and watching tutorials on YouTube. But in my opinion, while these are useful to a degree, they're not nearly as beneficial as simply working. You need to build a volume of work for yourself if you really want to learn. And you'll learn so much more from actually doing than just learning about doing. Tutorials have their place, but that should be 10% of your creating time, no more. It's easy to rationalize 50%, and then watch in guilt as that slowly balloons to 95% of our creative time as distractions come up or creative sessions get cut short. But we can control this by making the actual work a priority. Learning is helpful, but make sure that you're "doing" more than you're "learning". Way more.
In full disclosure, I get stage fright all the time regarding making music, even in the privacy of my own home. I'm afraid to write a song or produce a track because I feel it's not going to be good enough.
Before I share any more on this, I want you to watch a video of the best advice for musicians I've ever heard. Don't worry, it's only two minutes long.
When I first watched this little clip, I found Sheeran's perspective so encouraging. You mean I'm not broken because I'm writing bad songs? And that writing bad songs leads to good songs? That's such a refreshing perspective, but when you have enough distance from something to see it clearly, it makes perfect sense: anybody starting out isn't going to be as good as someone who has been doing it for a while. Just like how someone just starting out at the gym shouldn't be discouraged if he's lifting small weights. Same with cooking, novel writing, painting, basketball, anything really. It takes time and dedication to slowly work up to the big stuff.
Here's the thing about crappy songs: first, no one is going to think they're as crappy as you think they are. You are your own biggest critic. Second, if the song truly is crappy, you don't have to share it. But you do still have to make it if you want to grow as a songwriter or producer. And third, you'll never learn to write good songs or produce good tracks if you don't get your crappy songs and crappy tracks out of your system first.
So freely create! Do it! Stop letting fear of quality keep you from creating, because it will if you let it. Put in the time doing your thing, doing the thing you hope you'll be paid handsomely for in five years and will be famous for in ten. Yes, that thing you imagine yourself being successful doing in the future? If you want to be that good and get to that place, you need to start doing it now. Start small, and just begin.
Back to Prodigies
I'm sure there's some stickler still reading who wants to point out that so-and-so is so much better than he is, or that Mozart started composing at a ridiculously young age. I fully admit some people are more talented than others. But why? It comes down to experience and time, in my opinion. I suspect wee-little-Mozart didn't blindly stumble into music, but was surrounded by it and coached with it since before he could form permanent memories. A lot of things are easier to learn when the brain is still developing: language is a big one, and music is too. Not that adults can't learn languages or music.
And I think another piece of the puzzle is what you're encouraged with and discouraged with from a young age. If your family frowns on academics yet praises you for your dancing and rhythm from a young age, you'll probably grow to believe that you're a good dancer and bad in school. And that belief based on the feedback received can focus and drive someone to make that become true, by being willing to take risks dancing around more people, and to take fewer risks in school, by giving up on a hard problem before another student might, just before the answer or the moment of understanding. And all of these experiences stack on each other and build deep ruts that we believe define us.
I grew up being told I can't dance, and my fear of humiliation kept me from trying, which made it become true. The truth is that I can dance: because of my musical experience, I have a great sense of rhythm. I'm not a great dancer, but I'm not incapable of ever dancing ever, like I thought I was. And what if I want to get better? Try dancing more often, either going out to where there's music or in the safety of my home. And if I want to get a lot better? Take lessons. The skill of dancing wasn't given to me. I got a slow start, but I can choose to make up for lost time if it's important to me.
So maybe your friend with an amazing voice was told she was good from the age of five, and that inspired confidence to sing in front of others and motivation to practice more. Maybe you started with the same raw material, but because someone told you at age five that you stink, you've been avoiding it till now. I'm not going to lie, your friend has an advantage. Probably over me too. But it's not too late for you to start learning. Put in the time yourself, spend the hours practicing, and learn to find confidence from within yourself. That's what you need to grow.
And lastly, 10,000 hours? That's a lot. How are we ever expected to achieve that?
Ten thousand may be a valuable benchmark for mastery, but that doesn't mean that someone with 9,999 hours of practice has no skill and can't create meaningfully.
The way I see it, if you want to start guitar, the first ten hours of practice are going to teach you a lot. And anyone would be able to listen to you before and after that first ten hours of practice and hear a marked improvement. Sure, you're not great yet, but those first critical hours have laid the foundation for greater skill. And 50 hours of practice later, I bet your guitar playing will start to sound more like music. And 100 hours after that, you may have friends start telling you, "You're good!"
And by the time you reach 1,000 hours? I'm sure you could still find faults if you're a perfectionist and pessimist. But if you're honest with yourself? You'll be pretty good at guitar or whatever you started by the 1,000 hours point.
As I said, it's not 10,000 hours or nothing. Every hour counts, and the early hours count far more than the later hours. Just put in your time and watch the results come to you. And if you're consistent and dedicated and continually pushing yourself to grow instead of retreading old ground, the results absolutely will come to you.