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“You can either focus on looking good or getting good, but you can’t do both.” –Marshall Goldsmith, Top Ranking Executive Coach

On April 11, 1983, at 9am, the band members of the soon-to-be global rockstars Metallica were preparing to record their first studio album in a warehouse in Queens, New York.

Their current guitarist Dave Mustaine—who had helped write much of the new album—received a rude awakening (on top of a horrific hangover), when he received the news that he had been fired.

He had already been replaced and the band had purchased him a bus ticket home to California, that departed in an hour.

Though the band members had a high tolerance for partying, Mustaine’s behavior had grown so disruptive, they voted unanimously to remove him.

Kirk Hammett, a 21-year-old reasonably good guitar player, had been selected as his replacement, and still plays with the band today.

But here is the interesting part.

Hammett was not your average arrogant and self-centered young rockstar. Despite having obtained his dream job and fame, he returned home to the west coast to begin—of all things—intensive guitar lessons.

Is it just me, or do you find it incredible that a young heavy metal rockstar who had just achieved legal drinking age somehow had the wisdom and foresight to double down on training when he was already pretty good by most standards?

Hammett selected a scrupulous teacher named Joe Satriani (Satriani is now the bestselling instrumental guitarist of all time).

For the next two years, Hammett was utterly committed to seeking feedback and criticism—being drilled in technique and musical theory every week.

Satriani was apparently known for firing many of his students for lack of commitment. But Hammett was reportedly very disciplined and determined not to waste his expert teacher’s time.

Even after his intensive two years of tutelage, Hammett would continue to bring new material to Satriani for ongoing feedback and suggestions.

Although he was rich and famous, Hammett somehow kept his ego in check enough to be the humble apprentice for life.

It’s hard to believe his dedicated and humble posture didn’t have something to do with the band’s stratospheric future success.

If you aren’t a child of the 80’s and 90’s who grew up destroying your parents high-end speakers with Metallica like me (or my colleague Dr Meseroll, who just might have attended a recent Metallica concert), let me give you a few facts about the band:

  • In 1991, Metallica played the largest concert in history at that time for 1.6 million people in Moscow.
  • They’ve won 9 Grammy Awards and been nominated for 23.
  • 6 out of their 10 albums reached #1 on the Billboard top 200 list.
  • Metallica is now considered one of the most successful bands in history and the third bestselling music group of all time, currently having sold more than 125 million albums.
  • Hammett himself was ranked as the 11th best guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone in 2003. No doubt he has continued to improve since that time for another two decades.

A daily little death for the ego

Most people’s egos would relish the fame and success that Hammett achieved—but they would not be willing to suffer the humbling and painful daily feedback that he was willing to endure.

Our egos hate thinking that someone is better than we are.

But if one is to become really good at something, it requires a commitment to ongoing feedback—and to some degree—remaining a student for life. It requires feeling like we aren’t good at something most of the time.

But that is the price tag of real success.

The irony is that to subject ourselves to ongoing training and feedback, our ego has to die a small “daily death.” We have to face the emotional pain of knowing we still have room to improve so we don’t get to enjoy that dopamine hit of deluding ourselves into feeling that we are better than we actually are.

Last year I had the opportunity to interview a former Navy SEAL on our podcast who mentioned that the SEAL’s have something they call “realistic self-appraisal.”

That means they always know where they rank compared to the group when it comes to shooting, running, swimming, etc.

They are comparing themselves to some of the most well-trained humans on the face of the earth. This gives them the ability to go into battle with authentic confidence, because they know how their abilities actually stack up against the best competition—they have been tested continuously.

Even if they rank 75th  in their class, they know this might also mean they rank 75th in the world, for that particular skillset.

In his wonderful book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday shares extensive historical examples of true masters in many fields (music, athletes, or science) who have approached their training this way.

What could happen for your leadership, your marriage, your parenting, or your professional life—if you were willing to approach these areas more as a student and less as an expert.

What could happen in your life if you made a commitment to never stop learning and seeking feedback even when it was difficult? Especially from those who probably know much more than you do about a particular thing.

This approach isn’t glamorous and it doesn’t produce overnight success (of course there is probably no such thing). It requires grinding it out, often in obscurity, in search of truly becoming better.

And even if you achieve a measure of success, surely the best way to keep it is a fierce commitment to ongoing learning and growth.

I personally know that I love this idea and these stories, but my ego hates the practical application and the reality of it, so I need these reminders to stay committed.

I have to brag on my little brother for a moment. He took up Jiu Jitsu shortly before his 40th birthday and told me a great story that pertains directly to this lesson.

At his gym, he was required to walk into training in order of experience, which meant that when he started, he was the last one in a long line of people, often following behind 18-year-old’s who may have had several more years of experience than he did. He would often go on to take a severe beating from someone half his age. Now that requires a serious death of the ego!

He went on to win some competitions, but he didn’t start that way.

I’ve heard it said that the “willingness to appear foolish” by asking questions and appearing that you don’t have all the answers, is an unlikely but vital personal leadership skill. The attempt to never look foolish, is itself, foolish.

We can build this practice into our lives by modeling it, teaching it to our children, and fostering a “learning culture” into our organizations.

Turn information into action

  1. Ask more questions (including dumb questions). Most of us don’t ask nearly enough questions, whether it be in relationships or meetings. We like to appear that we have the answers. We like to share our knowledge. So next time you feel that urge to make a point or tell a story, ask a question instead. Be willing to ask what might seem like dumb questions.
  2. Seek a master, take a lesson. Every field has masters, classes, and best practices. And it has never been easier or cheaper to find them. You can find them on websites, podcasts, and in books. Identify some masters in your field and find out what they have learned. Then see how you measure up by testing yourself against their standards.
  3. Try new things you are not good at. Trying new things kills the perfectionist inside all of us because we cant be good at something the first time. This is a great practice for keeping us humble.
  4. To suffer fools gladly is wise. Saint Paul encouraged this 2000 years ago and the advice is still solid (2 Corinthians 11:19). If you are a leader or a parent, you must create a culture that encourages the asking of questions and learning, not humiliation and pretending like you have all the answers. Your team and your kids watch how you respond to seemingly silly questions. You train them daily by your reactions.
  5. Build the habit of seeking feedback. Don’t overcomplicate this. You can ask a trusted friend or colleague for criticism on something or get written feedback in “track changes” in a Word document, or a formal 360 executive assessment of yourself. Just begin building this habit for life. Try to forget about looking good and start getting good Play the long game.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed articles, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker co-hosts every other episode.

Want more? Suggested Resources…

  1. What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
  2. Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
  3. See my prior post on a related psychology topic called Deliberate Practice
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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