“We have not wings, we cannot soar; But we have feet to scale and climb By slow degrees, by more and more, The cloudy summits of our time.” -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Ladder of St. Augustine

For the second time in my life I have committed to wearing contacts. I say second time, because about ten years ago I attempted this feat to no avail. My combined lack of patience and long eye lashes proved too great at the time.

My eyesight has gotten progressively worse over the years which inevitably led to my return. When I returned to the eye doctor’s and announced that I was back to give contacts another shot, all of the well-intentioned employees grimaced despite their best efforts to remain stoic. After all, I was the high school student who came in for contacts and spent the ENTIRE day just trying to get them in and out… once.

After the usual eye exam, it was go time! They gave me a pair of contacts, solution, a desk, a light and I was on my way. To no surprise to myself, and I imagine all of the fine employees, I met with little success. My emotional response coupled with their reactions proved a great teachable moment: Perhaps my greatest ability is to persist.

No matter how bad it looks, or how easy it is for others, I will doggedly push on until I get where I want to go. I may have to work twice as hard or twice as long as my counterparts, but given enough time I will reach my aim.

The employees at the eye doctors overwhelmed me with two things: their kindness and lack of patience. They offered sweet, encouraging guidance as I repeatedly failed in my attempts. After thirty minutes or so they started making comments like “Contacts aren’t for everyone.“, and “You know, I think you’d really like glasses better.

And this life lesson was well worth the $30 copay.

Their reactions to my fallacy, had I been a more socially dependent creature, could have led me to believe that I was not capable of such things, or that I was “bad” at putting in contacts. They were so quick to write me off, and so rigid in thinking, that I wondered in what other areas of their lives did they act as such. I imagine many.

From my perspective, I felt the sympathy that lined their words of encouragement was unnecessary. It seemed that these empathetic individuals tried to soothe me of the frustrations they themselves would have felt in such a moment. But I experienced no such frustrations.

The modern day philosophers of success such as Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton taught me long ago that cultivating technical skill is not a matter of black and white or good and bad. It is a continuous growth process in proficiency.

All mastery is simply a matter of accumulating massive amounts of conscious hours in a particular skill.

How could I possibly expect to be proficient in putting contacts in if I have no practice doing so? Not only did I experience no frustration as my flailing attempts were met with no success, but I actually felt great joy being so amidst in the learning process.

After a countless string of failed attempts, irritated eyes and hours hence, I finally got the contacts in. I guess every man has his Everest, no matter how small.

This day proved to be a microcosm of the mastery process.

Step #1Begin the journey.
Step #2You meet with failure, but find the support of your peers.
Step #3You continue to fail. You find less support of your peers.
Step #4You fail some more. Others suggest you try a different path.
Step #5Your failure persists, but so do you.
Step #6You reach a breaking point with your culmination of hours invested in this pursuit. You persist, and eventually succeed.

Spark Your Growth

Lessons learned from the eye doctor:

We must always remember that acquiring a skill takes a great amount of time. Mastery cannot occur without great patience and a firm resolve. Others will try to sway you off your path. Do not mistake their impatience and lack of faith for your own. Achieving our dreams is actually very simple:

Continue on until you get to where you want to go. If you do not stop, nothing can stop you.

This whole concept of mastery is quite simplistic. To become great at anything you have to consciously perform that task for an inordinate amount of time. It is believed that great proficiency in any cognitively complex task can take up to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This averages out to about 3 hours a day, every day for ten years.

So I propose a new mindset when we label ourselves and others as “good” or “bad” at a particular skill. Instead of using concrete terms, lets simply label our progress relative to where we are on the continuum of hours performing that task. If we are proficient that means we have spent a great deal of time practicing that particular skill. If we lack proficiency, we are not “bad”. We simply have not accumulated enough hours of practice to be proficient.

Remove limiting terms when describing yours or others' abilities. Embrace the learning process, and continue to acquire the hours of practice mastery takes.

We are not “bad” at anything. We just haven’t done it enough yet.