4 bullets entered his arms, legs and back severing vital organs along the way. He died immediately.
A minute earlier a dark impala with a mysterious driver rolled up next to his SUV and pulled out a 9mm. He started shooting. That was the end.
At 24, Christopher Wallace also known as Notorious BIG was dead.
6 months earlier, his contemporary Tupac Shakur was also gunned down and died. He was only 25.
What a waste.
Two super talented rappers dead before they hit their prime. Dead before they had time to realize their full potential. Dead before they could see how their music transformed a generation.
Like many upper middle class white kids, I listened to a lot of gangsta rap during my formative years. Whenever life gets too busy and I stop being grateful. I find listening to music from my youth helps me chill out, relax and start having fun again.
The other day, I was listening to Hypnotize by Notorious BIG and started to get nostalgic. Remembering the ‘good old days’ when life didn’t have so many worries.
I then started thinking...
How did Biggie and Pac get so good despite being in their early 20’s? How did they stand out from the crowd? What was their path to mastery?
This post answers those questions.
We’re going to break down 3 common paths toward mastery and apply them to the stories of Biggie and Tupac. Looking at it from this framework allows us to understand how two boys from the most unlikely backgrounds “made it” in the cutthroat music industry.
Model of Mastery 1: The 10,000 Hour Rule
Our society values instant gratification. Instant fulfillment. Instant replay. Instant Macaroni. Instant relief. Instant approval. Instant wealth. Instant fame.
We hate slowing down. Our patience sucks.
When we don’t get the instant success promised to us by marketers, we quit and move on. We’re always looking for the next titalizing thing that grabs our attention. Never getting great at one thing.
In George leonard's ‘Mastery’ he presents the 10,000 hour rule. Stating it takes around 10,000 hrs of focused practiced to achieve mastery in any one field. No shortcuts. 10,000 hours of focused practice. Nothing else will do.
Many have tried to shortcut this process. Few have succeeded.
The 10,000 hour rule shows up in the stories of everyone from Mozart, to the Beatles, to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to Picasso etc. etc. etc. etc. And both of our rap stars fit this model.
- Tupac started performing as a teenager at the Baltimore School for the Arts where he took acting and dance classes, including ballet. It was in Baltimore where he discovered rap and began performing. He then moved to the west coast and joined the Oakland, California-based hip-hop group Digital Underground. You may remember their hit “The Humpty Dance”.
- Rap was always a part of Notorious BIG’s youth. In his song Hypnotize he talks about being exposed to rap at a very young age. After being arrested at age 17 for selling crack he spent 9 months in a North Carolina prison before making bail. The extra down time allowed him to focus on his music. He then hooked on with a rap crew the "Old Gold Brothers," and began experimenting on his own.
For the purposes of this illustration, let’s say Biggie started rapping at around age 13 and Tupac started around 12. Each practiced an average of 2.75 hours each day. Every day included periods of creating, writing, listening to music and refining their craft. Some days they put in more focused effort and time, some less. That means they would practice 1,000 hours each year. If they kept this up, they would have achieved 10,000 hours by ages 23 and 22 (Around the time when they “made it” in the rap game).
I have no doubt that they practiced more than this. I’m just illustrating my point.
Biggie and Pac put in a lot of hours despite being so young.
Elite performers follow the 10,000 hour rule. They don't take shortcuts.
This is where the Arnold Schwarzenegger "Reps, Reps, Reps" principle of success comes in. Arnold trained 6 hours a day for 10 years and that’s why he was the best. If your end goal means that much to you, 10,000 hours won’t seem long.
Remember the ancient Chinese proverb "the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now. "
Model of Mastery 2: Deep Practice
Biggie and Pac entered states of ‘Deep Practice’ regularly. It allowed them to get really good, really fast. It was a driving force in their rise to the top of rap and the reason they changed music despite being so young.
In Daniel Coyle’s the Talent Code, we learn that ‘Deep Practice’ is a state where rapid learning and skill acquisition happen. Your brain and body click on all cylinders and you become a learning machine. Practicing in this way accelerates the learning curve and causes deep levels of understanding.
Rap happens to be the perfect model for understanding and implementing ‘Deep Practice’.
Here’s the elements of deep practice (using Rap as the model)
- Looking at the task as a whole. Examples include listening to a song, record or body of work of another rapper. Both artists were known to have huge music collections and were exposed to all types of music.
- Breaking the task into its cumulative parts. Such as practicing the flow of lyrics, writing songs or playing with the beat and melody.
- Playing with time. Speeding up or slowing down parts of the song to gain deeper levels of understanding.
- Instant feedback loops. Listening to your song after it was recorded and seeing where you can improve. Also freestyle rap provides instant feedback. People either like it or they don’t.
All elite performers have used 'Deep Practice' to become the best. Picture Kobe Bryant taking a jump shot. He’s not thinking about his form, follow through or release. It’s automatic. Because he has been in the ‘deep practice’ zone so often he can focus on other aspects of the game. Like defending, strategy, court awareness etc.
Biggie and Pac achieved the same automatic reflexes but with their music. They developed a 6th sense for it.
When you incorporate the elements of 'Deep Practice', your brain says “hey let’s make this task more efficient so I don’t have to work so hard”. From there your nervous system starts laying down new layers of myelin which make the process faster and more efficient.
After getting into states of deep practice, your brain can concentrate on higher tasks and make new connections. All masters have been able to enter this zone and improve at a rapid rate.
Model of Mastery 3: FLOW and Optimal Performance
Biggie and Pac faced death every day. Their lives depended on being focused and ready to jump into action. Ignoring this meant death.
In the aftermath of Biggie’s 1994 album Ready to Die's, he found himself in constant fear. He told The New York Times that he was disliked for having the money that came with fame. Whenever the door to his apartment building opened, he jumped, fearing that someone would murder him.
Biggie channeled this fear into elite performance for his 1997 album ‘Life After Death’. The fear, danger, risk and novelty he experienced, allowed him to regularly enter deep states of FLOW. The result was a new sound combining the best of hip-hop, rap, gangster life and his unique understanding of music. His track ‘Notorious Thugs’ showcased Biggie’s Dynamic range with the rap group 'Bone Thugs n Harmony'.
FLOW allowed him to push his music to the next level. His sound was fresh, different and innovative. ‘Life After Death’ is considered by music writers as a landmark in hip hop music. The album is ranked in the top 3 Rap albums of all time and in on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Biggie and Tupac used the unique and dangerous circumstances of their lives to leverage the power of FLOW. They used FLOW while in concert, writing, in the studio or just spitting rhymes. The levels of elite performance they experienced allowed them to innovate and create new styles that influenced a generation of rappers over the next 2 decades.
If you’ve ever been deep into the zone, “on fire” or in a state of peak performance this will be familiar to you.
FLOW states happen when we are performing in an area of competence, yet with some risk (either physical or social). Your brain releases a neurochemical cocktail that would make your pharmacist blush. This phenomenon allows the person to do the unimaginable and push themselves into peak performance.
- Focus. Any activity that requires lots of focus, will increase the chance of getting into a flow state. This can mean athletic, professional or artistic.
- Risk. The brain releases dopamine when we are at risk and out of our comfort zones.
- Rich Environments: Lots of novelty, complexity, beautiful scenery, many people, lights, contrast etc.
We can find ways to create these elements in our lives and induce states of elite performance. After understanding this model of mastery can you think of a profession more likely to create FLOW than ‘Gangsta Rapper’? Facing daily death threats, deadlines, social pressure, fame and sudden wealth...
Rapping It Up:
Doesn’t it seem silly to analyze rap artists for ideas about how to achieve elite performance and become a master? I don’t know. You tell me.
10,000 hrs, Deep Practice, FLOW. It’s a lot to take for anyone. When you look at what it takes to become the best in the world, the process becomes really scary. It’s like being at the base of Mount Everest and looking up at the peak. Most people quit right there before they even start climbing. They don't want to try.
I’m not sure I want to do it either. But I’ll keep hiking.
- Biggie Smalls. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 02:23, Jul 10, 2015, from https://www.biography.com/people/biggie-smalls-20866735.
- Tupac Shakur. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 02:27, Jul 10, 2015, from https://www.biography.com/people/tupac-shakur-206528.