There’s a quote I love that my qigong sifu introduced to me: “The Master has failed more than the Beginner has tried.” It’s an ancient Chinese proverb. And oh, I rebelled against the idea at first. I mean, it’s not that it didn’t make sense. But when I first started to do qigong a few years ago, I was doing it casually with a local teacher. I knew qigong could be a very powerful tool for physical healing, but I certainly wasn’t experiencing it. And then I started studying with my current teacher. I got serious – no longer just a casual student. I decided I was all-in. And being all-in, the quote offended me.
The first many lessons of the first year-long course I took from him were all about ‘you’re going to fail, so here’s how to begin again’. He taught me more about motivation, will-power, and habit-building than I thought I’d get from someone teaching me what I consider (essentially) a healing version of kung fu.
And all along I thought, ‘okay, yeah, I’m watching the videos, I’m taking in the information, but I’m not going to need this. I’m all-in. I’m not going to stop, or fall off the horse. This is going to heal me of my constant, debilitating pain. I’m all in, god-damnit! Stop doubting me!’
Don’t worry. I got over myself.
Because of course I stopped. I fell off the horse. I failed. Oooo, over and over again I failed. After the first blush of enthusiasm wore off, and it did, I got bored, and I had to work through the boredom, rather than do something else. Actually building the habits necessary to have a daily practice was hard. And building the habits to do the level of qigong I need to do daily to be able to be largely migraine-free and bust through my decades-long insomnia has been hard. (Today has been a win so far, but my journal reports quite honestly that last Monday was almost a total fail.)
And it’s still a work in progress. Partly because we humans only have so much will-power and it’s always seemed like I had less than average. And so habits are built slowly, gently, one at a time. And my propensity to want to start fifteen new habits all at once was also a propensity toward self-sabotage, perpetually setting myself up to fail.
A Sidebar Discussion of Success, Failure, and Mastery
When I consider the difference between notions of success and notions of mastery, failure’s role becomes more obvious. Success is generally an end-state. You succeed, and then you’re done. You’ve finished the project, published the book, won the award, finished the movie, gotten the job, passed the class, secured the degree, finished the marathon, had the child. Success occurs, and then quickly recedes into the past tense. You were successful. You did succeed. Perhaps your successes pile up one on another (good for you), but they are… events.
Mastery is not an end-state. Mastery is a zone you enter where your efforts produce higher-quality results with greater consistency and lower effort and so long as you continue in the zone you get better and better, and it gets easier and easier to do. You still have to put in effort and time, but your returns on the effort and time you put in are very large, and the law of diminishing returns does not seem to apply.
So if success is an end-state, failure blocks the end-state from happening, perhaps permanently.
And if mastery is a zone to be entered after taking a certain specific number of steps, failure gets you one step closer to the zone – only total non-action will block mastery from happening, for as long as the non-action continues.
Building Habits, Building Mastery
But I went ahead and read James Clear’s Atomic Habits (highly recommend) which spelled out how to do it step by step. I started to keep a second journal to chart my habits as they changed, and the qigong I was doing (or failing to do). I reflected on another quote I can’t remember quite as clearly – essentially that over the course of our lifetimes we’re going to master things, so we should be sure they’re worthwhile. And I thought about what I’d mastered in my life thus far (going by the 10,000 hours rule). Some of them were mundane things like driving safely. Some of them were more specialized and one I’m quite proud of is my mastery of fiction writing by the time I was twenty-seven.
And I thought about that quote.
The Master has failed more than the Beginner has tried.
Thinking about my own journey of writing… oh yeah. There’s truth in that quote. But considering the earliest things I’ve written, and even the things I wrote when I’d just managed mastery and only just entered that zone… it all just makes me grin. Those are mistakes I can look at and genuinely laugh because look at what I can do now!
And so… I’m working to just generalize that knowledge – transfer it right over from one part of my life to another. I don’t adore qigong anywhere as much as I do storytelling, but then again, I don’t adore anything else that much, and it was that passion that in some regards substituted for will-power and self-discipline in the beginning. (Now I have all three in regards to writing. Most days.) When it comes to qigong, instead of passion I have this experience that I’m having right now as I write this blog post: I’m not currently in pain and I’m not currently taking drugs, and I’d very much like to stay that way.So if you need to change your life, you can; one habit at a time. Read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and follow his very clear, no-nonsense method. And prepare to fail several times before you hit your zone. And know that it’s totally normal – failing may not be how we define success, but it’s a necessary part of mastery.