Jonah Berger on Mediocrity, Human Nature, and the Secret of Constant Improvement

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“Terrible things get replaced, but mediocre things stick around. Horrible performance generates action, but average performance generates complacency.”

Jonah Berger

Practice habits are just that: habits. Much of what we do today will be close to identical with what we did yesterday. And last week, and last year.

Why? Because of the power of inertia. As humans we are generally reluctant to change or try new things. We value what we already have/do/think more than anything different.

Inertia can also work for us. If we have great habits, inertia keeps us doing them. We don’t want to change – not because what we’re doing is good, but because we’re already doing it.

The exception is when something is bad in the extreme. For example, suppose the doctor gives us a near-term death sentence unless we eat less sugar. Here, we’ll probably suck it up and make the change.

But anything less than such a severe prediction would spark little or no action.

And this is why it takes great intention to build new and better music skills. Chances are, what we are already doing is “fine.”

We may not be progressing very quickly. We may have minor frustrations that we can’t remember the pieces we learned last year. We may feel clumsy and slow most days.

But like Jonah Berger writes, “mediocre things stick around.” We become complacent. We accept our mediocrity. We grow inert, with inertia.

So how do we buck human nature and make the changes we would prefer? How do we “level up our game?” And how do we do it without feeling like everything is a struggle?

One way is to change our standards. We can change the definition of “practice.” We can change it to include high-quality focus, awareness, and intention.

And we can realize what doesn’t work and avoid those. We can stop tolerating daydreaming, rote repetition, or playing too fast. We can label these as “terrible” and be more likely to change them.

Instead of hum-drumming the same routine as yesterday, we can demand more engagement. We can remain more aware, active, and attentive.

Even if our guitar practice routine stays the same, we can raise the bar.

We can listen to each note in real-time. We can feel our muscles and how they interact with gravity. We can slow down and take the time to play with more accuracy and precision.

We can try something new, if only for a minute.

We can clap and count a rhythm, or work on musical expression. We can set a timer and spend an extra minute with a challenging technique exercise.

If we can improve 1% in each practice, we’ll go further faster.

As the old saying goes, little hinges swing big doors. And some of the most powerful hinges in guitar practice are our standards and awareness.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Hi Allen, I am a Dutch guy who plays classical guitar (solo and together with a flute player). Unfortunately I have been suffering from focal dystonia since begin 2016. Of course I tried physical therapy which didn't help… But I tried some of your [technique] lessons (I had teachers before but I was never taught your techniques) and to my big surprise the nasty feeling in the back of my right hand which pulls my index finger upward was gone! So now I practice your lessons. Anyway, I am very happy to have found you on the internet. Thanks very much!

-Arnoud Reinders

I have lost my entire metallic sound while I am playing now. Even my single note practice sounds more melodious, less tinny. [The Woodshed technique practice] has made a major difference in my tone. Thank you.

-Harlan Friedman

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