Becoming Proficient

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, Tobias Wolff, author of “This Boy’s Life,” came to campus as part of a series of guest speakers. I really enjoyed the movie based on the book, so I was eager to hear him speak. One of the things he mentioned in his speech really stuck with me, and I’ve recounted it to people ever since when trying to explain how difficult it is to become genuinely proficient at something.

In his speech, Wolff explained that when people hear someone play a saxophone— or any musical instrument for that matter — they don’t immediately think they can pick up the same instrument and play it just as well. However, when people read a book, a newspaper story, or anything written, they often think they could write something just as good.

“’I know all those words,’” they say to themselves,” Wolff said. “’I could write something like that.’”

I can tell you it doesn’t work like that, as can anyone who has tried to earn a living writing. The point Wolff was making is that lots of things seem easy when looking in from the outside — and there is a distinct parallel between his speech about writing and learning to drive fast, and to race.

Even if I really wanted to play the saxophone, I couldn’t do it without a ton practice, which always involves frustration and setbacks. Driving fast and racing are even more difficult than writing well or playing the saxophone, and I’ve found that it doesn’t come easily, without frustration and setbacks. Just because someone knows the same words doesn’t mean they can write. Just because someone has a drivers license and can drive a stick doesn’t mean he can lay down fast lap times.

In the past, I have heard HPDE instructors tell students not to go into racing too quickly because they will become frustrated. They might even quit. I have to admit, the thought of quitting crossed my mind a time or two, but I really wanted to be good at this sport, and quitting is no way to do that. I think it was about that time that I recalled the rest of Wolff’s speech, which detailed how hard you have to work to become genuinely proficient at something — anything.

When I got my competition license, I found the whole experience very humbling. I experienced setbacks in my rookie season and found that neither my driving nor my car were up to the task of running with the Spec Miata pack in my region. I remember my first several races — you know, with the orange “R” on the back of the car — were frustrating because I just couldn’t hang.

I know guys who didn’t get past that frustration and they did quit, which most certainly will result in them never getting any better at racing. It’s important to recognize frustration as a challenge to improve your skills.

Am I proficient now? The short answer is no. But I’m better than I was, and I look to get better each time I go out. The long answer is perhaps part of what makes racing so utterly engaging, in that there is always more to learn, skills to hone, and wisdom that comes only from putting on your helmet and putting your car on track.

Racing might seem easy from the outside looking in, but if you’re reading this magazine, you know that isn’t the case. You can’t just hop in a car and instantly become the next Lewis Hamilton — even if you have a license and can drive a stick.

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