BECOME A STUDENT



Chapter 3 

BECOME A STUDENT


Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down.

—SIGN IN THE NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT TRAINING ACADEMY

In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job. Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group. With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco.

   That same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and member of a band called Exodus, was given the job. Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

   One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life. Indeed it was. Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places. Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun. Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

   It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization—that despite his years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be. At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher. In other words, despite joining his dream group and quite literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction—that he was still a student. The teacher he sought out had a reputation for being a teacher’s teacher, and for working with musical prodigies like Steve Vai.

   Joe Satriani, the man Hammett chose as his instructor, would himself go on to become known as one of the best guitar players of all time and sell more than 10 million records of his unique, virtuosic music. Teaching out of a small music shop in Berkeley, Satriani’s playing style made him an unusual choice for Hammett. That was the point—Kirk wanted to learn what he didn’t know, to firm up his understanding of the fundamentals so that he might continue exploring this new genre of music he now had a chance to pursue.

   Satriani makes it clear where Hammett was lacking—it wasn’t talent, certainly. “The main thing with Kirk . . . was he was a really good guitar player when he walked in the door. He was already playing lead guitar . . .he was already shredding. He had a great right hand, he knew most of his chords, he just didn’t learn how to play in an environment where he learned all the names and how to connect everything together.”

   That didn’t mean that their sessions were some sort of fun study group. In fact, Satriani explained that what separated Hammett from the others was his willingness to endure the type of instruction they wouldn’t. “He was a good student. Many of his friends and contemporaries would storm out complaining thinking I was too harsh a teacher.”

   Satriani’s system was clear: that there would be weekly lessons, that these lessons must be learned, and if they weren’t, that Hammett was wasting everyone’s time and needn’t bother to come back. So for the next two years Kirk did as Satriani required, returning every week for objective feedback, judgment, and drilling in technique and musical theory for the instrument he would soon be playing in front of thousands, then tens of thousands, and then literally hundreds of thousands of people. Even after that two-year study period, he would bring to Satriani licks and riffs he’d been working on with the band, and learned to pare down the instinct for more, and hone his ability to do more with fewer notes, and to focus on feeling those notes and expressing them accordingly. Each time, he improved as a player and as an artist.

   The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed—one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can’t be “hacked”; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t, they drop you.

   We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdenedFor this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life—but it is almost always a component of mastery. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.

   The result, no matter what your musical tastes happen to be, was that Hammett became one of the great metal guitarists in the world, taking thrash metal from an underground movement into a thriving global musical genre. Not only that, but from those lessons, Satriani honed his own technique and became much better himself. Both the student and the teacher would go on to fill stadiums and remake the musical landscape.

   The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.

  The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.” This begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions you have about yourself.

   The need for a student mind-set doesn’t stop with fighting or music. A scientist must know the core principles of science and the discoveries occurring on the cutting edge. A philosopher must know deeply, and also know how little they know, as Socrates did. A writer must be versed in the canon—and read and be challenged by her contemporaries too. A historian must know ancient and modern history, as well as their specialty. Professional athletes have teams of coaches, and even powerful politicians have advisers and mentors.

   Why? To become great and to stay great, they must all know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next. They must internalize the fundamentals of their domain and what surrounds them, without ossifying or becoming stuck in time. They must be always learning. We must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics.

   Think about what Hammett could have done—what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or a soon-to-be-rock star in our chosen field. The temptation is to think: I’ve made it. I’ve arrived. They tossed the other guy because he’s not as good as I am. They chose me because I have what it takes. Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band. There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.

   A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.

   Take fighting as an example again, where self-awareness is particularly crucial because opponents are constantly looking to match strength against weakness. If a fighter is not capable of learning and practicing every day, if he is not relentlessly looking for areas of improvement, examining his own shortcomings, and finding new techniques to borrow from peers and opponents, he will be broken down and destroyed.

   It is not all that different for the rest of us. Are we not fighting for or against something? Do you think you are the only one who hopes to achieve your goal? You can’t possibly believe you’re the only one reaching for that brass ring.

   It tends to surprise people how humble aspiring greats seem to have been. What do you mean they weren’t aggressive, entitled, aware of their own greatness or their destiny? The reality is that, though they were confident, the act of being an eternal student kept these men and women humble.

   “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.

   The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, labor to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great. The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however. Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are—that is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.

   Ego doesn’t allow for proper incubation either. To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox. Humility is what keeps us there, concerned that we don’t know enough and that we must continue to study. Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes that we’re good enough to give our talents a go in the world.

   As we sit down to proof our work, as we make our first elevator pitch, prepare to open our first shop, as we stare out into the dress rehearsal audience, ego is the enemy—giving us wicked feedback, disconnected from reality. It’s defensive, precisely when we cannot afford to be defensive. It blocks us from improving by telling us that we don’t need to improve. Then we wonder why we don’t get the results we want, why others are better and why their success is more lasting.

   Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barrier—technology has done away with that. There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.

   Our teachers in life are not only those we pay, as Hammett paid Satriani. Nor are they necessarily part of some training dojo, like it is for Shamrock. Many of the best teachers are free. They volunteer because, like you, they once were young and had the same goals you do. Many don’t even know they are teaching—they are simply exemplars, or even historical figures whose lessons survive in books and essays. But ego makes us so hardheaded and hostile to feedback that it drives them away or puts them beyond our reach.

   It’s why the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.”





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