Just before she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, I watched Lady Gaga dazzle the live audience with a pitch perfect performance of her hit “Shallow.” From her stage skills to her vocal ability, the talented performer made it all look so easy.
When we see people performing at the top of their fields— from Broadway to business—they often make it look simple. But people who achieve Lady Gaga levels of success arrive at the top by way of rigorous training. They refuse the elevator, preferring to take the stairs.
The romantic notion of a wildly talented genius who effortlessly reaches the epitome of achievement has about as much practical validity as the Easter Bunny. Rather, it’s the unglamorous, repetitive practice regimen that unlocks creative brilliance.
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, now known as Lady Gaga, was born on March 28, 1986, into an Italian American family in New York. Her ascent to stardom was less about raw talent and more closely aligned with her relentless work ethic. She began playing piano at age four and became driven to become a star before her tiny legs could reach the piano pedals. In a 2009 interview, she told a London reporter, “I’ve always been famous—you just didn’t know it yet!” She already viewed success as part of her being, which drove her to extreme levels of training and practice.
While her elaborate outfits and theatrical performances may appear to be the child of whimsy, Lady Gaga is meticulous and deliberate about every aspect of her music and brand. Growing up, she spent hours honing her craft. Pushing aside the customary pleasures of childhood, she studied piano, singing, and dance with the intensity of a Zen monk. When she wasn’t practicing performance skills, she studied the legends of fashion design, theatrical staging, choreography, and visual artists. Her training inputs were a strange mix—from David Bowie to Bach, from Andy Warhol to Cher. She drew inspiration from an eclectic mix of artists, later weaving their ideas together into her own unique style.
“To be completely candid, the creative process is approximately fifteen minutes of vomiting my creative ideas,” Lady Gaga said in a 2011 Gagavision interview. “It all happens in approximately fifteen minutes of this giant regurgitation of my thoughts and feelings, and then there are days, months, and years spent fine-tuning.” To put this in perspective, if creating a hit Gaga song takes five hundred hours in total, the ideation process is only .05 percent while the vast majority of her creative time is spent shaping and refining her work. And if you include the thousands of hours she invested in deliberate practice before the song was initially spewed onto the page, the contrast would be even more glaring.
It’s the ritual of refinement that’s often the difference between mediocre and legendary work.
It’s been said that the one thing all great authors have in common is lousy first drafts. The difference between a bad book, a decent book, and a breakaway bestseller is often directly linked to the amount of time invested in the refinement stage. When a writer quickly dumps her ideas onto a page and ships them to print, the end result isn’t usually her best work. In contrast, her masterpiece comes by doing the reps in the unglamorous and painstaking process of refinement.
We all know that doing the reps is required to build physical muscle mass in the gym. Regrettably, none of us are born with “six-pack abs.” Yet most of us garble the translation when it comes to creativity, thinking that it is a fixed talent rather than a malleable skill. And skills of any kind only become deeply ingrained by way of repetition.
At age sixteen, Stefani began working with famed vocal coach Don Lawrence, who had also worked with Billy Joel, Christina Aguilera, and Mick Jagger. Behind the glitz of her dramatic performances, Lady Gaga still does the reps and continues to work with Lawrence. For a single high-profile performance in 2017, she trained with her coach every single day for six months leading up to the show.
Today, her training regimen continues with enviable discipline and consistency. To keep up with the physical demands of the job, she exercises five days a week doing yoga, Pilates, and strength training. She carves out time to write music and rehearse daily. Lady Gaga is the product of intense and consistent practice, an amalgamation of her countless hours doing the reps. Each Big Little Breakthrough she achieved fused together into the megastar we now love. In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Bestselling author Seth Godin might have put it best when he said, “Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you’re not in the mood.”