Repetition is the mother of learning. This is something I’ve been hearing ever since I was a kid. And I wasn’t an easy child. Whenever I didn’t succeed at something, I would get all worked up and cranky. Not much has changed. I can still hear the calm, soothing voice of my kindergarten teacher saying:
All you have to do is try again. Repetition makes the master.
But does it really?
Surely, if you repeat a simple, monotonous task enough times (like fitting that stupid triangle in its stupid hole), you will get good at it. But what about complex tasks? Or highly creative work? What if you want to create a masterpiece? Does the old saying still hold true?
I set about to find the answer. It’s been a long and fascinating journey, which took me from 18th century Salzburg to a photography studio in Florida. And the answer was quite unexpected.
How to Create a Masterpiece
As usual, I began by looking at overachievers. These are people who have reached the pinnacle of success. They have mastered their craft and have created masterpieces that are admired to this day.
One of these people was born in 1756 in Salzburg. He was a prodigy. At four he could flawlessly play the piano. At five he started composing. And at the ripe age of six, he held his first concerts. His name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in timeNannerl Mozart
Throughout his career, Mozart composed over 600 pieces of music. He was undoubtedly prolific and successful, influencing several generations of musicians.
But how many of his compositions were true masterpieces?
As an MD and a scientist, I’m obviously not qualified to answer this question. But I know someone who is. A whole group, actually: the London Philharmonic Orchestra. They made a list of the 50 greatest pieces of classical music.
How many does Mozart have on that list? Six.
Six pieces out of more than 600. That’s less than a 1% success rate. And we’re talking about one of the most talented musicians of all time.
Well, maybe Mozart was an exception, right? Maybe he just needed a lot more tries, a lot more repetitions to get it right. What about other musicians?
Let’s take Beethoven. He produced over 700 pieces during his lifetime. Only five made the list. And Bach? He outdid them both, composing over a thousand works. Three were masterpieces. Three pieces out of over 1.000!
Just take a moment to think about this. Imagine spending your whole life creating music. Your sole purpose is to create ever-lasting masterpieces. You practice and sweat, keeping at it day in and day out. You churn out over 1.000 pieces of music. And the result? Only three of them are just right.
But maybe this is typical for musicians, I thought. Maybe music is a craft where you really need a lot of repetitions until you master it. What about other fields?
How to Achieve World-Class Success
I then started researching successful people from various fields. It was fascinating to learn all their stories, their quirks, and their path to success. But I’ll spare you the details. Here’s a breakdown of what I’ve found:
Inventions and Technology: Thomas Edison holds over 1.000 patents for his inventions. Out of those, maybe 4-5 are truly remarkable.
Acting: Ernest Borgnine is the most prolific actor in Hollywood history. According to imdb, he’s performed in 206 movies and TV series. How many of those performances were worthy of an Oscar? One.
Sports: Tiger Woods was introduced to golf before he was two. By the age of three, he was playing on nine-hole courses. Sure, he’s won 81 PGA Tour Championships in 43 years. That’s impressive. But he’s been playing golf for 42 years, training 13 hours/day. That’s a whole lotta repetitive swings for every championship.
Painting: Oh, don’t even get me started. Cézanne created 900 paintings. And Picasso produced 300 sculptures, 34.000 book illustrations, 100.000 prints, and 13.500 paintings! How many of those are known worldwide? About a handful.
There are no shortcuts — everything is reps, reps, repsArnold Schwarzenegger
I could keep going, but you get the idea. These are all hard-working, gifted people ⏤ the cream of the crop in their fields of activity. And they still need hundreds or even thousands of repetitions to get it just right.
But what if your aim isn’t to become world-class at something? What if you just want to be really good? Does this still apply?
How to go from Average Joe to Jedi Joe
The answer to this question is beautifully illustrated in the book Art & Fear:
On the first day of the term, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, stood in front of his film photography students, and announced that the class would be divided in two.
On the left side of the studio, the first “quantity” group of students would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced. The greater the number of photos submitted by the student, the higher their grade.
On the right side of the studio, the second “quality” group of students would be graded solely on the quality of work produced. Unlike the “quantity” group, these students were only required to submit one nearly perfect image, to get an “A.”
At the end of the term, Uelsmann graded the students in both the “quantity” and “quality” group. The results were astonishing.
The best photos were all produced by the first group being graded for quantity.
As Uelsmann looked into the reasons for these unusual findings, the facts emerged: whilst the “quantity” group of students were busy taking photos, learning from their mistakes and improving the quality of their photos, the “quality” group sat around pondering on how to create the perfect picture, procrastinated on taking action, and in the end, produced mediocre photos.
From legendary geniuses to world-class performers, to ordinary people creating quality work ⏤ they all have one thing in common: repetition.
If you want to become good, you have to put in the reps.
I don’t care how smart, talented, or beautiful you are. If you really want to get results, you have to practice your craft. Over, and over, and over again.
Of course, many of those repetitions will suck. In fact, most of them will. Just keep at it. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you will get closer to that one perfect rep. And what a glorious day that will be!
Until then, keep failing, keep learning, and keep growing.