Here’s something that didn’t happen: Tommy Caldwell, in the days following the first ascent of the Dawn Wall, being interviewed by a journalist about how he did it, said: “Well, I’m sure it looks like a lot of work to climb this thing, but I have this one trick move that I do and it’s really easy for me.”
Also something that didn’t happen: Lael Wilcox, just after becoming the first American to win the Trans Am Bike Race, tweeted: “I don’t really train at all. I just eat Brand X energy bars and they make me really fast.”
You can probably imagine similar stories not coming from successful authors, entrepreneurs, and athletes. We love the story of a hardworking person putting in the hours, the blood, sweat, and tears to realize their dreams. Or do we?
A few years ago, I was talking to a person who wanted to become a writer, and that person said to me, “I’m sick of people telling me I need to put in my dues to get to where I want to go. At this point, I want a shortcut.” And every few weeks, I get a message from an aspiring creative asking for some tips, tricks, or secrets on how to get started as a writer or filmmaker. I don’t have tips, tricks, or secrets on how to make it easy for anyone, and I’d guess no one else does either. I suggest a two-step process that seems to work for people, if you also apply something called “patience”:
Step 1: Make the best thing you can every time, as often as you can do it.
Step 2: Stick with it for a few years.
If you get to the top of your climbing project the first time you try to lead it, guess what? It’s not a project. You’ll lower off, thinking, “Holy shit, that was much easier than I expected,” and you’ll move on to something that’s a real challenge. Because that’s what you want: something that will push you mentally and physically and help you grow. That’s the point—not walking into a climbing gym for the first time, cruising up everything, congratulating yourself on your immense natural talent, and moving on to the next hobby. That’s why people climb for years before they think they’re anywhere close to “good at it”—or write for years before they feel like they’ve found their voice, or paint for years, or whatever.
In the era of clickbait articles and listicles, we love “hacks,” tips, tricks, and shortcuts. You can hack some things: opening jars, technology, occasionally your burrito order. But nothing long-term worth working for can be hacked, and if it can be hacked, it won’t be nearly as meaningful.
Sure, we love shows like American Idol, because they perpetuate a one-in-a-million dream-coming-true story. But none of the people on that show got on that stage without trying hard for a long time before the moment we see them on TV. They weren’t standing in line at Starbucks and then said, Oh hey look, they’re having auditions across the street, I used to sing a little bit in middle school, maybe I’ll get in line and see if I can remember all the lines to “Waiting on a Friend,” and then all of a sudden impress the judges enough to get on the show. That’s not how anything works.
Not even performance-enhancing drugs are a shortcut. I mean, look at every single cyclist ever caught doping: Do they look like they spent the past few years sitting on the couch eating Funyuns and playing Call of Duty, but knew a guy who knew a guy who could get them the proper pharmaceuticals to get them on a podium at a cycling race? Fuck no, they trained their asses off, AND they took illegal drugs.
You want a shortcut, here’s one: Stop believing that anyone who’s successful at anything has some secret other than focus, drive, and a shitload of hard work. There’s your shortcut.