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.”
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.