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'The Difficult Years': The Most Ignored Yet Vital Years of Your Life

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In the two-part series, “The Long Game,” released on Delve, video essayist Adam Westbrook suggests that all of history’s biggest achievers found success in exactly the same way, through a time he refers to as “The Difficult Years.”

Unpacking the stories of everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Marie Curie, Stephen King and John Coltrane, the essay sheds light on that often overlooked time in the life of nearly every high achiever, that time before they were anybody, when their work wasn’t being noticed or, worse, was downright failing.

The Long Game

The essay opens with the statement “History loves winners.” And it’s true. How often do you read a biography or hear the story of someone so impressive you start to feel like your entire life’s work is minuscule in comparison? We hear of greats like Leonardo da Vinci and we often say, as this film points out, “This is the work of a genius” when perhaps we should be acknowledging, “This is the work of a loser.”

You see, though da Vinci exhibited great talent at a young age, his work history before he finished The Last Supper at age 46 was pretty rough to say the least. Often his grandiose ideas didn’t match up with what was feasible, and he left works incomplete, gaining a reputation as someone who didn’t finish the job.

As we see in this essay, this led him to a career sketching dead criminals as a way to make a living. Even when he was commissioned by the Duke of Milan to create several pieces, he upset the Duke’s mistress through a painting he made of her. He then spent months working on a giant bronze horse, which was recalled quickly when the Duke needed more bronze for his cannons.

Still, da Vinci worked tirelessly each day, chipping away at his craft for an incredible 16 years before finally minting his name with The Last Supper. But the really cool part about this essay is that it points out how almost every big achiever shares this silent chapter of incredibly difficult work and struggle and toil before really “making it.” Even more interesting is the fact that we often overlook these not-so-sexy years when telling their stories.

John Coltrane is one given example, as he practiced the saxophone for 17 years before experiencing his first hit. Even child prodigies, Westbrook believes, go through these years – they just get them out of the way earlier (read: Tiger Woods working on his golf swing at age 2).

In fact, some of the most shocking information found in this film is the fact that, at age 30, many historical “greats” were in rather unimpressive situations. English scientist Michael Faraday, who made big advancements in electrochemistry and electromagnetism, was sweeping the floors of a lab.

Ulysses S. Grant, before he became President of the United States, was, at age 30, a mid-rank soldier with several failed business attempts who was struggling financially. Nikola Tesla, best known for developing the alternating-current electrical system and discovering the rotating magnetic field, was bankrupt at age 30, having just parted ways with Thomas Edison’s company before investors forced him out of Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. Even Harrison Ford was working as a carpenter at age 30 because he couldn’t land any significant roles.

Becoming a Master

Not only does this essay suggest that these high achievers went through these years, it actually posits that these years are what made them great.

“That’s just how long it takes to get this good at something,” says Westbrook, “but it feels like we’ve forgotten this. These days we’re in such a hurry, and I worry we’ve created a dangerous blind spot in our approach to creativity.”

The essay also references Robert Greene’s book, “Mastery,” which describes this period as “a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.”

So why don’t we pay attention to these years? Or – and this is perhaps an even more important question: Do artists today even have the grit to make it through times like these?

Facing Your Own “Difficult Years”

If you’re a musician or an artist in the age of technology when so many things come instantly to your fingertips, is it even a possibility to consider spending 10 or 20 years in obscurity as you work to build your craft and become a master?

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” Malcolm Gladwell looks at the primary factors that play into success, concluding that anyone who wants to get somewhere in a field must practice that skill for 10,000 hours. Just to clarify, that’s 250 weeks of working 40 hours a week at something. To break it down even more, that’s almost five years of full-time work.

When you’re a creative, especially when you’re a creative who’s having to make an income with a day job, this is no small feat. Say you can only put 15 hours a week into something. Well, that’s going to slow you down significantly, to be sure. But the true test lies in whether you have the patience and the endurance to do it – even if it does mean going years without any kind of notoriety.

Devoting this kind of time to any one craft may seem like an utter impossibility, or just a plain nightmare, in a world enchanted with what we like to believe are overnight successes and ways to get rich quick. But what if we really did put our shoulders down and commit to something – commit to it for the long game? History has proven time and again that it’s in this kind of prodding away, this kind of thankless apprenticeship (so thankless it’s described as a “self-directed” apprenticeship!) that true success eventually comes.

Even in our fast-paced culture, we see that those pursuing careers as doctors and surgeons or any kinds of specialists have to make it through years of schooling before even beginning residency, which is at least a three- to five-year commitment.

So, rather than allowing these statistics to overwhelm you or to intimidate you about your future, allow them to free you up to take the necessary time to learn your craft, to become a master, without concerning yourself with the results in the meantime. If history proves true, then and only then will you stand a chance at tasting true greatness and seeing your work come to fruition as you’d always hoped it would.

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