Why being great is boring

by | July 2, 2012

“How long did it take you to prepare that sermon?” asked someone of the great minister Dr. Lyman Beecher.

His prompt reply: “Forty years.”

When asked how long it would take to learn the violin, the virtuoso violinist Felice Giardini replied, “Twelve hours a day for twenty years.”

And that was coming from a child prodigy on the instrument.

After the great Polish pianist Paderewski played before Queen Victoria, the queen exclaimed, “Mr. Paderewski, you are a genius!”

“Ah, Your Majesty,” he said, “perhaps; but before I was a genius I was a drudge.”

Masters make their work look deceptively easy. Amateurs gaze up at their pedestals with stars in their eyes, dreaming of fame and fortune, anxiously searching for shortcuts.

Everyone wants the glamour and glory. But incredibly few are willing to do the arduous, prolonged, behind-the-scenes work required for public success.

There are no shortcuts to success. You must dig in boring trenches before you can plant your illustrious flag on the mountain.

When you watch the movie Gandhi, you see a magnificent leader conquering a powerful empire. What you don’t see are the lonely years he spent in law school hunched over mind-numbing textbooks in libraries, tediously memorizing case law.

You marvel at Bill Gates’ net worth. What you don’t see is the years he spent coding seven days a week through all hours of the night in the computer center at the University of Washington.

You groove to the Beatles’ rock-star albums. But what you’ve never heard is the music they played in Hamburg, Germany clubs for eight hours a night, seven days a week for years, nor have we seen their hard-earned calluses.

99 percent of dazzling success is solitary, monotonous work.

You’ll never receive genius-level inspiration if you’re not willing to endure grunt-level perspiration.

As Steven Pressfield counsels in Turning Pro:

“We’re all nothing without the Muse. But the pro has learned that the goddess prizes labor and dedication beyond any theatrical seeking of her favors. The professional does not wait for inspiration; he acts in anticipation of it. He knows that when the Muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”

Achieving greatness requires more willful stamina than natural talent.

Furthermore, the most honorable things in life rarely receive praise. As P.J. O’Rourke wisely observed,

“Everybody wants to save the world, but nobody wants to help Mum with the dishes.”

Helen Keller added,

“I long to do great and noble things. But it is my destiny to do small things in great and noble ways.”

Taking out the trash or washing dishes may not make headlines, but the world turns on such seemingly insignificant acts performed by humble servants.

So stop gazing upwards at spotlights on stages. Pick up your shovel, and start digging the ground at your feet.

Stop waiting for inspiration and sit your butt in the chair day in and day out. Keep the dream alive in your heart, but put your shoulder to the wheel.

For how long? For as long as it takes to become great.

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