Like many Americans, I started learning guitar back in high school. I began where everyone did – strumming basic chords and melodies and building up my finger strength. I got a little better every day, and could eventually play simple songs.
I kept practicing and getting better and pushed myself to learn advanced techniques. I wanted to know how to play all the notes — every scale, every chord, alternate picking, sweep picking, tapping, and so on. I didn’t want my technical proficiency to limit what I could play.
Over time I built up a repertoire of techniques to use. Even though I could play a lot of technically advanced parts, I didn’t necessarily know how to play the guitar well.
When he was developing as a writer, David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest) had a similar focus on the advanced stuff. In his multi-day interview of the author, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, interviewer David Lipsky asks Wallace what his younger self would think of his new work, and if he thought things like character were pointless. Wallace responded with:
Not pointless but that they were easy. And that the hard stuff was more, you know, front of the head. It’s never as stark as pointless or not pointless. It’s, you know, what’s interesting, what’s advanced, what’s next? It’s gotta be — right? Not what’s true, but what’s fresh and novel and whatever. It’s very difficult to get out of that.
In his early work, David pushed himself to produce advanced work that would be considered “fresh” and “novel.” Not because that helped him communicate a larger truth to his readers, but because he wanted to push himself as a writer.
I’ve observed this focus on technical mastery in every creative field. Young filmmakers care more about getting the perfect lighting and shooting on film (rather than digital) than they do about story (check out the HBO series Project Greenlight for great examples of this). Digital product designers create slick UIs that look great on Dribbble, but aren’t usable or feasible or valuable. Programmers build technically impressive solutions to problems that don’t exist.
It’s easy to focus on this “hard” stuff because it has a clear path forward. Just practice what you aren’t good at and you’ll improve. And by learning the “hard” stuff, you’ll distinguish yourself from amateurs and beginners. When I was in high school, this is what I thought it meant to “master” the guitar.
As a result, I overlooked the “easy” stuff. The “easy” stuff is knowing when to use advanced techniques, and when to do something simple. It’s using your skills in service of achieving a higher goal – writing a song, communicating a truth to the reader, telling a good story, building something useful for people, etc.
I’ve since learned that to truly master your craft, you need to know the “hard” technical skills, and how to use those skills. So don’t just focus on learning all the notes. Learn when to play the right note, too.