mastering the mechanics



“I am not human.
I am a cyborg.
I am mechanic.
That’s all I am… right?”

Marissa Meyer, Cinder


I like to walk, plod/jog and think (clear my mind) on a track at a local high school. For over 5 years I have watched a young woman practice softball on an adjacent softball field with her father, mother and a variety of coaches. She has literally not improved in the entire 5 years.

Which leads me to mechanics.

She has clearly been taught the mechanics. When she pitches, she has all the singular aspects of what a pitcher does to, well, pitch effectively. But she implements the mechanics mechanically. It is almost like she checks of sequential boxes of what she is supposed to do to do what she wants to do well. It fails.

She has been taught the mechanics. When she hits, she has all the singular aspects of what hitter does to, well, hit effectively. But she implements the mechanics mechanically. It is almost like she checks of sequential boxes of what she is supposed to do to do what she wants to do well. It fails.

Which leads me to competency and the grind.

Lets get one of the biggest obstacles most of us have ingrained in us out of the way: your genes don’t dictate your achievement. Sure. Genes affect your physical strengths and weaknesses that could impact what you elect to do <height, weight, sight, muscular, etc.>, i.e., shift mechanics knowledge into natural implementation, but you are not born with “oh, that’s not in me” type behavioral things and, in particular, intelligence.

Significant long-term research <the Human Genome Project> suggests that genes play little or no role in explaining differences in intelligence. This means that genes are not the reason you are smarter or ‘less smarter’ than anyone else in your family. This means that almost everyone has the potential to succeed in school, life, and careers. This also means that there is no inherent reason why children from low-income families cannot succeed as much as those from wealthy families <assuming they all have similar opportunities>. This means that basic competency in almost anything is attainable – to anyone.

Studies show over and over again that if a young person believes their mental/intelligent abilities are not fixed <i.e., “you are not good at math” or “you are not artistic”> a young person can increase its performance in any subject. This is also true with almost every ‘competence.’

Let me be clearer. If parents or teachers do not start from the assumption that abilities are fixed, children will perform better. This also means if you don’t believe someone’s abilities are fixed, they will become more competent in more things more often.

Which leads me to studies on ‘exceptional success.’

Exceptional success does require exceptionally hard work. The classic illustration is the fact that all professional orchestral soloists who have been studied have done at least 10,000 hours of practice. And the typical orchestra players average around 8,000 hours.**

** Note: this is the study from which Gladwell erroneously made his suggestion that anyone can be an expert in anything if they put in 10,000 hours of anything.

What Gladwell missed, and what people should think about, is why some put in the extra 2,000 hours and why some do not. And does it matter if you do not put in the extra 2,000 hours if you end up emotionally healthy and ‘successful’ in terms of who and what you are? Regardless. I imagine my point here is to be exceptional you need to put a lot of hours in on the mechanics.

Which leads me to ‘nurturing.’

If you are going to put in all those hours there are some things that can make those hours less a grind. The environment in which young people <and I would argue this is the same in business ‘nurturing’ of employees> is groomed for future success and aspirations matters. Studies show ruthless, competitive, and perfectionist/seemingly implacable environments are more likely to nurture what is called “ego-depletion.” Later on in life this creates compensation techniques <which are most likely not the healthiest decisions>.  It produces a much greater likelihood of doing “bad” things as compensation. Put crudely, if you do that dreaded paperwork or housework for an hour, you may feel more like scarfing down a chocolate bar or having a drink afterwards. Now. The exception to all of this resides in one key foundational behavioral aspect – choice. At any age, if something is truly deemed ‘self-determined’, rather than feeling it is imposed, the ego is not depleted, but rather enhanced. There have been a number of studies that suggest if you treat aspirational hard work, training, practice and studying as a more playful activity, enjoyment tied to ‘work’, with an imagined array of dramatic wins and losses, the learning becomes more cognitive and success assessment acquires a healthier perspective. Approached this way the hundreds of hours practicing & work investment can quickly become thousands of hours. The implications are clear. The person becomes better while remaining happier. Success is not a specific goal, but rather improvement. The person just does, well, “well.” And within this simple concept of ‘doing well’ their idea of ‘exceptional achievement’ becomes self-identified and they are less likely to encounter emotional distress.  They are also less likely to be encumbered by narcissism <or me, me, me behavior>. And, maybe, just maybe, effective competence is attained, and enjoyed, and the mechanics become just a bit less mechanical, and your competence’ is just a bit more competent than the typical competence. This happens because you enjoy what you are doing rather than thinking about how to ‘do.’ I would also argue that this is the path to true expertise and exceptional success.

But exceptionalism must come from within a person and not by some external structural system.

Which leads me to some points I would like to make.

  • “The mechanics” are critical to success, competency and certainly expertise or exceptionalism. Mechanics is part of the grind; and it is not. Mechanics should ultimately end in ‘flow’ or ‘joy of doing.’ If it doesn’t, its just mechanics and not the ‘craftsmanship’ which makes up meaningful doing of anything.
  • Just as ‘interesting/entertainment’ is the key to engaging someone in listening to something you have to communicate; enjoyment is the key to learning & investing the work you need to put in to become ‘exceptional.’ I would suggest we should think about how flippantly we state ‘work is work and that is why it is hard’ to young people. I love doing some things and even if I put 1000’s of hours it is a version of ‘work’ I enjoy. Therefore, not all work is created equal. I kinda wish we would more often take this point of view with young people instead of pounding away on perfectionism and ‘outcome focus.’ Or at least balance this discussion out a little more often.
  • Several opportunities to nurture. Far too often we say youth shapes behavior. It certainly impacts behavior maybe even significantly so. But we have a number of opportunities to significantly impact a young person’s behavior. Just as I believe teachers can ‘re-align’ young people, I believe business managers also have that opportunity. Personally, I never treated employee management as business management I considered it Life management with a focus on business. Semantics? Maybe. But the reality is when a young person steps into business for the first time their behavior is shapeable. So all this crap about ‘millennial entitlement’ or ‘young people don’t want to work’ is just that … crap. A good manager in business can ‘re-align’ a young person’s attitude and certainly their behavior. A crappy manager doesn’t even try to do so. And you are not even a manager if you don’t believe it is your job to do so.
  • Exceptional is a tricky word and a tricky concept. It is tricky because there is no one simple definition. And because of that we constantly misuse it <even when well intended>. I would suggest even recognizing that ‘exceptional’ is multi-dimensional and often contextual & situational concept is a good thing for us older folk. I guess, to me, exceptional is more often than not an aspiration and not a destination many of us ever actually attain. We may see glimpses on occasion but, in its truest sense, exceptional is a very very difficult status to attain. On the other hand I could suggest that if you can be the best you can be, really the best you can be, that is exceptional.

Which leads me to the good and the bad.

This entire piece began with what appears to be a young woman with a passion for something, a strong desire to be good at her passion, and a lack of natural ability to see the fruits of the efforts applied against her passion. I could argue this is why “follow your passion” is crap advice, but for today let me end with the good and bad.

  • The good

Let me clear, she’s putting in the work. The essentials to actually shifting from mediocrity to better than mediocrity. Or. If she had the innate talent, from good to great. There is a part of everything, including something as fun as athletics, that is the grind. The mechanics. I think its good when anyone invests in learning the mechanics of anything they desire to do well (or people will be dependent upon them doing it well). Mechanics are the basics of competency. 1000’s of hours makes your mechanics good.

  • The bad

I see fewer people, all people, putting in the grind time on the mechanics. Let’s just say that while I am sure there are people putting time against the mechanics, the grind, when I see it, I am always pleasantly surprised. I would argue the overall diminished societal ‘grind’ investment (a speculated decline in my mind) has lowered overall competency on, well, everything which leads to lower expectations on everything and lower basic quality of all work. Yeah. That is just speculation on my part, but, it feels right. That’s bad.

In the end.

Just try and remember that having exceptional success is very rarely associated with what genes you are born with; it is more likely associated with your attitude and the work you do put in on ‘the mechanics.’

Just try and remember that competency, in and of itself, is about the lowest bar one can meet. It most likely suggests someone can carry out the requirements of a specific task. Sure. It may be better than able or capable, which implies that it is possible someone may actually be able to carry out the task, but it is also not ‘qualified’ which stresses the possession of desired skills nor does it ratchet up to anything higher unless it gets attached to fit of skill, efficient or even good. I say all that because if you commoditize competency, and it is already perceived as ‘the lowest good bar for the responsibility’ then you have dumbed down the concept of what is actually needed to a place in which it appears that anyone could almost do it. and. If you commoditize competency what is the reward for mastering the mechanics?


Written by Bruce