2 Essential Keys to Surpassing the Best in Your Field

“It is well to respect the leader. Learn from him. Observe him. Study him. But don’t worship him. Believe you can surpass. Believe you can go beyond.”

– David Joseph Schwartz

When I rewrote the lead for a promotion that GX – a successful copywriter – had been paid to write for one of my clients, I felt good about my revision. The sales copy GX had sent in was standard, run-of-the-mill professional palaver. My take on it felt fresh and strong. It was better.

But when I sent it back to my client, I worried that GX might not like that I had changed it so much. Perhaps he would feel slighted and reject it.

We couldn’t force him to use my copy. If he insisted on using his original copy, my client would be in an awkward position. She could risk offending a potentially good source of future copy by insisting on using my version. Or she could mail what we both believed was weaker copy and suffer the economic consequences.

Luckily, she didn’t have to make that choice. After getting my new lead with suggestions on how to finish out the rest of the package, GX wrote:

“I read it and thought: ‘Why couldn’t I write it like that?’ But then I realized that’s why MM’s so successful. I’m honored that he took the time to do that. I appreciate the effort. My challenge now is to make the rest as strong as MM’s contribution … to make us all proud.”

This story has two morals.

The first is about ego and its opposite – humility. The greatest challenges we face in life are always obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to learning complicated skills like writing (copywriting, editorial writing, writing for blogs, e-zines, books, etc.), the one thing that will keep you from learning quickly is hubris.

Hubris is Aristotle’s term for excessive, blinding pride. It is the sin that foiled many great tragic heroes, from Oedipus to King Lear to Scarface. When writers believe – or desperately want to believe (which is sometimes worse) – that their writing is above reproach, they cannot possibly get better.

And what is true for writers is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, Sumo wrestlers, and skateboarders. Those who are willing to say “I can do better” – do better. Those who say “I am the greatest” soon take a fall.

What you want in your career is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

When I saw the note GX wrote, I was mildly flattered by the compliment. But I was really happy by his willingness to think “This copy is better. I’d like to do that.”

So that’s the first lesson:

No matter how good you are at doing what you do, someone out there can always teach you something.

Think about your strongest skill, the talent or capability you have that is most important to your goals and objectives. Now ask: “Am I confident in my skillfulness? Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better than I am?”

If you can confidently accept the limitations of your strongest skill, there is no limit to how far you can develop it.

And now we come to the second lesson:

The only good way to improve a skill is to practice it.

Reading about it is certainly helpful. Talking about it may work too. But all the talking and thinking in the world won’t do nearly as much as regular, focused practice.

And that’s what GX should know about his future as a copywriter. If he continues to practice writing by learning from his mistakes and borrowing from the skillfulness of others, then the likelihood that he will be great one day will be better than 99 percent.

I am certain of that.

Why? Because I’ve seen it happen. I have worked with more than a dozen copywriters over the years who have moved from bad to pretty good (and GX is pretty good) … and then from pretty good to very good … and then from very good to better than the best. All it takes is practice.

With practice and a willingness to keep learning, GX will almost certainly surpass the best copywriters in the business. It is just a matter of time. He should think of himself as hurling balls at a target in one of those carnival booths. Every hour he spends practicing is another ball in the hole. More balls, more progress. It’s as simple as that.

Human beings are designed to get better through practice. Everything we ever learn to do, from walking to talking to writing concertos, is done better through practice. Practice makes our fingers move faster, our hearts beat stronger, our brains think smarter. Practice is everything.

What do Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods say when they talk about their careers? It’s not that they were gifted with extraordinary natural talent. It’s that they work harder than their competitors.

Self-improvement is not a fad. It is the essential design of the human animal.

And here’s a final thought on the matter. Nothing in nature stays the same. If you are not getting better, then you are surely getting worse.

That is how I feel about submission wrestling. I don’t worry that I have no natural talent for it. I don’t sweat the fact that I’m 56 years old and most of the guys I wrestle are less than half my age. I don’t worry about my past mistakes or my present ineptitude. I just keep working at it.

I know for sure that if I keep at it, I’ll keep getting better. So far, that has proven to be true. When I started actively training in Jiu Jitsu about five years ago, I wasn’t very good at all. Most of the guys I trained with were much better. Some of them still are. But I have caught up to others. And even surpassed a few. What did I do? Nothing but acknowledge that I had room to grow … and keep practicing.

If you ever feel that you are not as good as you want to be, remember this:

  • It is good that you accept your limits. If you felt any other way, it would be hard to get better.
  • Humility is a strength to cultivate.
  • Confidence will come when you deserve it.
  • Avoid boastfulness and pride, because they will slow you down.

And most important: Practice with conscious attention, and eventually you will surpass even those you most admire.

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Click to Rate:
Average: 4.8
Published: November 12, 2007

25 Responses to “2 Essential Keys to Surpassing the Best in Your Field”

  1. Michael, Thank you again Sir.
    I don't understand the average 2.0 rate, this gets my 5.0 rating.
    Never mind though, many readers are simply looking (those readers who rate below 5.0) but only a few actually see the golden nuggets. They fail to see that opportunity is indeed dressed in work clothing...

    MylesAugust 1, 2009 at 10:19 pm

  2. Now, I am ecstatic to see a more personal development slant to this article as I believe it is the key to all other skill building effort!

    Jerry BuresAugust 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm

  3. "No matter how good you are at doing what you do, someone out there can always teach you something." Reminds me of Coach John Wooden and how each off season he would pick an area to improve on and bring it back to his team at UCLA in the fall. He was the winningest coach and Coach of the Century, but he always took the off season to learn from other coaches.

    BenSeptember 8, 2009 at 8:20 am

  4. Wise advice. This self-improvement has to be motivated from our hearts, souls and minds. Then everything becomes our daily routine to get better. Why should I see the future as a struggle, when so much has to be accomplished through work.

    M M WagnerSeptember 28, 2009 at 1:18 pm

  5. Mister Masterson, I never even pondered pursuing copy in my life until someone mentioned it and the proverbial light bulb blaringly guided me to this site. As I dig deeper into these lessons and practice, I realize the great change (in many ways) it can have on my life. Thank you for yet another inspiring nudging to keep the lot of us going.

    CopyGirlApril 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

  6. I think this is all a general approach to life - acknwledge your apptidue and positive qualities and always realise there is room to grow and learn.

    winbruckApril 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

  7. Thank you very much for this article. I started the course only a few days ago and realize I have sooo much to learn, but I needed the money a year ago, ha-ha! It's hard to be patient, but I must trust the process because there are those who have gone before and they have all come out of the 'tunnel' smiling and blinded with light with a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow. I am excited and look forward to the work -- wow I have really been sold! =)

    Trish CardonaMay 3, 2010 at 8:20 am

  8. So true! It often doesn't matter if we are super-intelligent or talented in a certain field. It's dedication and determination and commitment that are the elements of succes. Thanks for the inspiration!

    AmeliaJuly 20, 2010 at 3:39 pm

  9. Yes, its all about Humility and the willingness to learn from variable sources and to keep learning, realizing that we never learn everything or know everything about any particular subject. I think the human Ego is probably one of the Greatest Impediments to the Free flow of information and learning and one of the biggest causes of Human failure.

    canuckistanerJanuary 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm

  10. One sees the effects of egocentricity all around us in the news and on the street, and in almost every case the result is a degradation of the human spirit and achievement. It is most especially heinous when it involves our leaders. Humility can change lives and improve lifestyles immeasurably if it is truly taken to heart.

    WindmolenFebruary 8, 2011 at 4:51 am

  11. Michael,

    Thank you for writing this article.

    I really needed to read this piece. It resonated with me.

    "Practice makes perfect," goes the saying.

    However, I would rather try to achieve excellence than shoot for perfection.

    Just a question of personal choice, that's all.

    After all, "nobody's perfect," right?

    I think there is no substitute for practice, but you have to make it a daily habit.

    It should be like a second skin: on your mind all the time. Cheers.

    Archan MehtaMay 17, 2011 at 8:55 am

  12. Michael, Thank you so much for the encouragement, this teaching program is awesome....and I know it's going to take practice, practice, practice to be another tiger woods of copy. Dito...nobody's perfect, but excellent is excellent.
    Thank you again,

    JR CopySeptember 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm

  13. Thank you for your wisdom! I saw a tee shirt that said, "Play hard. Practice harder." and this article is all about that! My hand hurts from all the longhand but every exercise brings me closer to the life I dream! I love this course and I thank you and all the contributors to this program. I Am so excited about my new career as a copywriter!

    NaomiJanuary 28, 2012 at 1:07 am

  14. "...confidence that follows accomplishment." Yep. I'm looking forward to that feeling.

    DarMay 26, 2012 at 12:41 am

  15. I was just looking to laern how to write a business letter and found this program it is great learning experience. I'm having fun and I having read anything ten times the exercise definitely challenge my commitment.Thank for greating thid program

    G loveMarch 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm

  16. Thank you for your continued motivation.

    Antonio HillJuly 2, 2013 at 5:16 am

  17. AWAI's copy is so strong and compelling that here i am,convinced that i too can live the writers life. Can't think of a better teacher. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

    Charlie bajeJanuary 22, 2014 at 9:30 pm

  18. Dear Mr. Masterson, I can relate to your progress with Jiu Jitsu...at 42 I've been training for 4 years and can attest to what you say. Most people I train with are younger and stronger than me, but I hold my own against many. In reading your article, the connection you make inspires me to keep writing so someday I too may stand shoulder to shoulder with master copywriters like you. BTW, if ever in San Diego and would like to spar, come by Gracie Humaita in Kearny Mesa, you're always welcome.

    Art McCormackFebruary 20, 2014 at 3:24 am

  19. "Practice with conscious attention"...that phrase will remind me to "focus" on the task of the moment. Thank you.

    Holly MAugust 14, 2014 at 1:28 am

  20. Daily practice is so important and yet it can be a bit elusive when trying to juggle all the complexities of daily life. Confidence, commitment, and humility all play important roles. Great article and insight into the world of writing. Very much appreciated.

    DALanceOctober 5, 2014 at 11:25 am

  21. I appreciate the wisdom shared. I find this course fun. Writing my first Restuarant letter was also fun...receiving constructive criticism--not so much. Thanks! for your advice. I will make every attempt to...look forward to the suggestions people offer concerning my work. That's a critical element of the whole process.

    Rita MinnerJanuary 15, 2015 at 11:37 pm

  22. The more you practice the easier it is to practice more!
    similar to: an object in motion stays in motion.
    I like to read about famous people, John Wooden was a master at inventing ways to practice the art of basketball. His teams practice runnung, and they won more games in the second half then in other team.

    Ikan C ClearlyJuly 15, 2015 at 4:22 pm

  23. Beautiful article. There is always room for improvement. Just look within. If you cannot see it, then it means you have failed to grow as an individual.

    LilySeptember 11, 2015 at 1:37 am

  24. Practice makes perfect although it seems like you'll never reach perfection.But that is a good thing because it means that we all remain busy in trying to achieve that level of perfection. You can never know too much and you probably never will, but that is the ultimate reason to continue to practice whenever possible.Because that is what keeps our juices flowing and keeps our ambitions in fresh in our minds when we are constantly involved with the subjects that we are trying to perfect.

    calspad1206February 11, 2018 at 6:36 pm

  25. This is good "food for thought". Thanks for sharing about your experience.

    Wanda F SewellAugust 5, 2018 at 3:24 pm


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