New Moon Day: The Secret of Success

December 26, 2008


The Secret of Success


The other day a man asked me how he could close the seemingly vast gap that lies between his current level of practice and something verging on substantial progress. I detected a slight air of despondency.

The first thing I said was that patience is paramount. This noble quality must flow consistently through our entire practice like an underground stream. I then moved on to say that we often do not appreciate the progress that we are making. One way to gauge this is to reflect on how you used to be before you started to practise – whether that was one, ten or twenty years ago. How are your reactions different now to those of a year ago in regard to the various situations you encounter? Probably significantly different. And yet as you live with your mind every hour of every day you are not aware of the gradual change in your mental culture.

The Buddha gave a simile to describe this very subtle change as we move away from the defilements towards freedom from suffering. He used the example of an axe handle. We can see that over time the wood of the handle is being worn down but we cannot say that so much was worn down today and that so much was worn down yesterday. We can only say that it is being worn down. The change is imperceptible.

This element of patience is crucial since the effects of Dhamma practice cannot be acquired by taking shortcuts. As we are all too aware at the moment this global society is founded on desire. The credit crunch is a testimony to the triumph of desire over wisdom. People may have their iPhone in their pocket and their widescreen TV on the table and their Mazda in the drive but when will they pay the bank back? In the practice of the Dhamma we can’t get our enlightenment now and pay for it later, not even with 25%apr. The results arise only when the causes have been put in place; only when the practice has been done. This is why people these days struggle with the Dhamma. It’s real. It’s not fantasy. The amount that we derive from it is entirely proportional to the effort we put in.

And this brings me to perhaps the most crucial factor of all in terms of progressing on this path: practice; unrelenting, energetic, committed, resolute, consistent and devoted practice. There is no other way.

When I answered that man’s question I didn’t hammer home this point as much as I would have done if he’d have asked me it now. Why’s that? Because I hadn’t read a very good article in a particular science magazine that I’ve just been given. This article concerns success.

It claims that when looking at the greats in various areas of human accomplishment the element of innate talent is given too much prominence by most people. The author looked at a number of geniuses and prodigies, such as Mozart and Bobby Fischer, and while recognising their undoubted talent he claimed that it was not talent that made them who they were. It was practice.

He looked at the Beatles and a giant of the computer world – a man I had never heard of but whose programming work done some thirty years ago still underlies much of what we use now – Bill Joy. He looked at athletes and musicians and mathematicians and politicians and he found that one feature stood clear of all the rest. It wasn’t talent; it wasn’t genius. It was practice.

While investigating the amount of time these stars spent working at their vocation he came across a so-called magic number: 10,000 hours. This is a pretty precise number but we get the message: that is a lot of practice!

A study was made of a group of young violinists studying at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. It sorted them into three levels: those judged ‘stars’ – students with the potential to become world class soloists. Those judged ‘good’. And those judged average – those who were unlikely to ever play professionally and would likely teach at a college. Now, many would say that those who had made it to the ultimate level had talent on their side. But scrolling back the years and looking at how each violinist spent their time reveals a different story. The pupils were asked: over the entire course of your career, ever since you picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised? At the age of five each child was practising roughly the same amount – about two or three hours a week. But by the time the children had reached the age of eight big differences started to emerge: the stars were practising far more than the rest. By the age of nine they were playing six hours a week, by the age of twelve – eight hours, sixteen hours by the age of fourteen, and up and up until by the age of twenty they were practising well over thirty hours a week. That’s five hours a day, six days a week. By the age of twenty they had totalled 10,000 hours of practice. By contrast the ‘good’ and ‘average’ players had totalled eight and four thousand hours respectively.

This is very revealing. As well as this indicating the place of pure hard work and committed practice it also tells us there are no shortcuts to be taken if we are to master something. There are no excuses for not practising either. We cannot say: “Oh, I’m not that gifted at meditation so I won’t do it. If I had the ability I’d do it.” Rubbish! Just get on and do it! Practice is the only way! I often find that the only way I come to certain conclusions in my meditation is to just keep doing it, seemingly making the same mistakes over and over until something happens or I realise something. Now the only way I can come to that point is to keep on practising and plowing through the mistakes and difficulties and long silences of ‘no results’… until I arrive somewhere. As Ajahn Chah said: Be like the worm; just keep on burrowing.

So, in a way, it’s a relief to know this – that we don’t have to settle for second best; that we don’t have to trundle along at the same level ad infinitum. Without understanding the importance of practice we may look at the meditation masters and come to the conclusion that they are naturally talented; that they are somehow different. Looking at things in this way we create this comfortable little bubble around us that says we’ll never be that good so we don’t need to try. But when we really look at those greats we find that it isn’t genius, or talent, that sets them apart. It is practise.



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PS. It is now one year since Dhamma Diary came into being. As most blogs do I have a page that tells me how many people visit Dhamma Diary each day, which pages they visit and so on. Now, either a fair few people are following it or there’s just one person out there whose got a bit of an obsession. If the latter is the case then I’d like to keep our relationship purely digital.


The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Saturday 10th January, 2009!


2 Responses to “New Moon Day: The Secret of Success”

  1. Mutta said

    A truly inspirational diary entry. Thank you.

  2. Tahn Manapo said

    Steady… steady….

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