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On Confucian Steps and Gladwellian Hours

Sonal Panse,

A journey of a thousand miles, said Confucius, begins with one step. What he didn't add - or didn't think it necessary to add - were the innumerable little steps one has to take after that first one. In more modern times, Malcolm Gladwell said it took about 10,000 hours to get good at something. Mr. Gladwell didn't say count the hours and stop when you reach 10,000 and expect perfection to flower thereafter.

Yet there are some Confucian and Gladwellian readers that take it rather badly when one has to trudge on and on and on, hour after hour after hour, with no sign of journey end, and no visible growth of talent. It is rather like the story of the well-meaning tourist who came to the East on a spiritual quest and enrolled in a one-month course to attain enlightenment. The venture proved more profitable for the Easterners than for the Westerner.

The thing is, there is no surefire formula to success. No matter what someone tells you. Hard work helps, but sometimes luck matters. Sometimes some other factor. Sometimes you scoop up the prize in a day, sometimes only after light years in space, and sometimes you just keep revolving in your orbit and never find your home station. It is not always in your control. The best you can do is keep on doing what you love and what makes you happy and what could also, though not always necessarily, be of some use to other people. The bottom line is you have do something.

You can talk and theorize all you want about productivity. You can subscribe to newsletters telling you how to do something efficiently. You can read all the books in the world on it and attend expensive seminars by self-proclaimed experts. You can sit in your room and think up the most magical and innovative ideas. 

None of this will get you into the grand land of creative geniuses unless you roll up your sleeves and get started producing the thing you want to produce. 

If you want to write a book, you have to actually buckle down and write. 

If you want to paint, you have to actually paint. 

This is the difficult part of being a writer or an artist, the part where all affectations of a glamorous profession turn tail and vanish. There is no getting around doing the actual work.

And it is work, sometimes it is downright hard work. 

Sometimes it requires a great deal of patience and self-belief, because things just don't turn out the way you want them to, and the work does not come out good. You keep making mistakes and you have to accept these as part of the process and ready yourself for as many repetitions and revisions as are necessary until you can find your way past the tough patch. Sometimes the mistakes you make can lead to something far better than what you had originally envisaged. Sometimes, despite the best efforts, you just end up crashing into a relentless wilderness, and then the wiser decision may be to give up and start on something else.

Even if you do finish and like what you finished, it isn't guaranteed that the rest of the world is going to share your enthusiasm for your masterpiece. Sometimes you just draw the straw of being the unappreciated genius ahead of their century.

You want to watch it here though. Sometimes it could be just you that is the problem. We can be too close to our work to see things clearly. Or we could just be too obtuse genetically. My former music teacher once told an argumentative student that it takes intelligence to realize you're wrong. Some people never realize it. They always think it is everyone else. It is easier to blame someone else. If you're not getting ahead in your profession, it is because of those other people (from the Third World usually, if you are a First World person). It is never because your work is not yet what it could be. It is never because you're not trying other avenues than your usual ones. It is never because you don't want to change with the times. No, it is them and everything else, except you.

Don't be that person, whatever world you live in and even if your genes dictate it; when it's nature versus nurture, root for nurture, and if your nurturing has been in alignment with your negative nature, well then, what can I say, seek professional help and hope that works. The point here is that if you can train yourself to be a better human being, do it. 

Take an honest estimate of yourself - 

What are you not doing right? 

What could you do to change? 

What could you learn to do better? 

What other markets could you approach? 

It is better to consider your next steps than to wallow in self-pity, because self-pity doesn't actually achieve anything apart from blackening your already black mood, and that is only wasting more of your most valuable commodity, your time.