Structure

What is structure?  Things like going to bed and getting up at the same time every day; buying food that’s healthy, or not buying beer or candy; writing the first three hours of the day.

Just not buying beer to drink at home has been huge for me in making it possible to have productive evenings instead of crapping out in front of the tube.

Structure puts us in the right place at the right time.  Structure puts only healthy food before the elephant eyes of our appitite.  Structure makes it easy for us to build the kind of habits we want, and difficult to do the “bad” habits we don’t want.

Structure builds a shute around temptation to guide the elephant directly to the goal of practice.  It keeps us out of harms way, and puts us in the way of our practice, so that it’s easy to do the right thing at the right time. With time, we come to do those things almost automatically.  And this frees the energy of our minds to focus on our practice, rather than wrestle with a decision we shouldn’t have to make in the first place.

For example, I go to bed at 10 and get up at 5, whether I’m “ready” or not.  I write from 5 to 8 in the morning.  At 8 I practice yoga.  After yoga I eat breakfast, etc. 

Structure involves building riturals that correspond with the rhythms of the day so that we do our practice in time with the regular cycles of life.  This ritual cuts a channel through our brain as surely as running water cuts a channel through rock.

Pain and Practice

Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting.  There are no gains, without pains…(Benjamin Franklin)

Pain is an indicator.  It warns us of disease.  It tells us when we’re hurting ourselves or being damaged in some way.

It can also signal when our practice is leading to growth and when it is not.  Muscle growth results from microscopic muscle tears that cause pain, but also result in muscle tissue that is rebuilt with greater density.  We get stronger.

Deliberate practice focuses on those aspects of our work where we fall short, that we don’t do well, that are hard.  This in turn creates frustration, a kind of psychic pain, or anxiety that we won’t accomplish the goal our practice is meant to accomplish.

Mastery is learning to stay with the pain long enough to achieve breakthrough to the next level.  It’s learning to continually work the edge between growth and damage, between faith and discouragement, between where we are and where we want to be.

Working that edge is always hard, is always painful, because there is always a gap between where we are and where we are going.  And working the edge means working on that part we haven’t yet learned to do, lifting a weight we haven’t lifted; working till the pain is nearly unendurable, but not quite.

That is hard to do alone.  The experts nearly always have a mentor, a coach, someone to push and pull them along, to encourage them when they get discouraged, to build faith in them that they can accomplish their goal, to point out the best steps to take along the way.

But no one can do the work for us.  No one can take away the pain for us.  Pain is the price of breakthrough, of transformation.

Falling Down Joy

What do you do when your passion doesn’t measure up?  When your best work is considered average?  When your goals go unmet, your progress stops, and the audience boos?

What do you do when you’ve tried one interest after another, and you’ve fallen short in all of them?

What do we, the audience, tell this person?

Is it OK for the average to enjoy their work?

What meaning will our work have when it has all been superseded by machine intelligence?  That day may be closer than you think…read Automate This, by Christopher Steiner.

We lament the loss of love of learning, while we pressure our kids for straight A’s, while we pressure them to go to Ivy League schools, to get high paying jobs, while we measure and compare them in every possible way.

Why are we surprised?  None of that is about learning; it’s about being better than your peers, better than Europe, better than Asia.  We want more, so that we have more than the next guy.  If we’re doing better than our neighbor, then we must be doing OK.

School has become one great endless competition.  There is no more status conscious place on earth than the university.

Joy has come to me by focusing on the work.  I try to clear everything else from my mind; no thought of my audience, no thought of my “grade,” no thought of my peers.  I want to focus on my work, and experience the joy of working.

Here’s what I’d tell that person:  “Do the work you love, admire those whose work you admire, and learn from them.  Live within your means, and be a blessing.”

My Problem with Excellence

The problem for me with this whole “Wheel of Excellence” thing is that I’m more interested in non-attachment than I am in competition.

The idea of “mastery” appeals to me; the idea of “wisdom” appeals to me.  Is there a difference between these and excellence?

The end in view for the “Wheel of Excellence” appears to be peak performance; it appears to be winning some sort of competition.  But we can be “the best” and still be pretty lousy people, leading pretty miserable lives.

Mastery and wisdom feel less about peak performance and more about a way of life.

I want to live a good life.  I want to be happy.  I want to be a blessing to those around me.  I don’t want to be so consumed with being “the best” that I lose sight of everything else; that I lose my balance, my way.

Being “the best” feels one dimensional to me.  The focus is entirely upon one’s craft.  And it inherently involves comparing my own performance with that of everyone else I’m competing with.

Some other things grow out of that, of course.  The world’s best canoeist is undoubtedly disciplined, focused, and in top physical shape.  He is supremely confident.  He is committed.  He has a medal to hang on his wall, and validation of all his hard work.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.  I just wouldn’t be happy pursuing that kind of excellence, that peak performance.

I want my life to be meaningful.  I want to be competent, physically fit, and emotionally happy, with deep social connections.  I want understanding, and wisdom.

Peak performance doesn’t preclude any of those things I desire.

But when winning becomes the only thing, that light at the end of the tunnel just might be an oncoming train.

I’m OK with not being “the best.”  Maybe that makes me a “loser.”  But since I made peace with being ordinary, my life is a whole lot better.

 

Judgment Day

We debrief extensively. We go through every single flight, every turn. What did you do here? What cues were you using, how did you do that, how did you make the airplane do that? And we try to learn from each experience. The reason we all do that in peace time is so that we know we’re as competent as anybody can be so that if we have to go fight with those things, we’re better than anybody else. (Elite Fighter Pilot)

How do we get feedback on our performance, and how do we make that feedback actionable?  Patting ourselves or someone else on the back and saying, “Good job!”, when we both know it wasn’t doesn’t do anyone any good.

We need to be weighed in the balance.  We need an honest evaluation of our performance, the bad with the good, in order to get better.

For me, it helps to have a partner or coach, or even better, a community of practice.  I need people who watch me perform, who are knowledgeable in my area of performance, and whom I trust and can be vulnerable with.

It’s often hard to see ourselves in an objective light.  It is helpful, if painful, to see our performance through the eyes of others.

At the same time watching them perform, or listening to their ideas of how an expert ought to perform, can teach us what to practice, how to practice, and how to perform better.

The pain of evaluation leads to the joy of success.

Controlled by Distraction

The player that is not playing well is backing off shots, telling peopIe in the gallery to move and they’re hearing every noise on the golf course. Whereas the player who is playing well you could drop their bag at the top of their backswing and it wouldn’t bother them. (Top Professional Golfer)

I’m not a big tennis fan, but the pictures I’ve seen of Roger Federer often make me stand still and take notice.  The expression on his face while in full swing looks more calm and relaxed than that on a Buddha.

We admire those who have this kind of focus, but where does it come from?  How do we get it?

There’s a scene in Glory where Matthew Broderick’s character is unimpressed with one of his soldiers fine marksmanship, and orders him to fire and reload while Broderick bangs away with his pistol and urges the man to work faster, faster, and faster.

I have heard of flight simulators that continually find new ways to put pressure on pilots, to confront them with difficult situations they’ve never seen before.

Maybe the experts take control of these situations by creating practice scenarios that require them to perform under difficult and distracting situations, rather than what is ideal.

I remember a story about a young man who wanted to learn how to be a samurai.  So he sought out an old man reputed to be a master and the master agreed.  But rather than teach him about fighting, the master bade the student do all sorts of chores for him, and then would sneak up unawares and give the student a whack with a cane.

Finally one day the student saw the master bent over a pot cooking a meal, and decided he would give the old man a taste of his own medicine.  So he snuck up on him and brought the cane down on the old man’s head from behind, but the old man caught the blow with the lid from the pot – satori.

Practice Makes Ready

The third spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is mental readiness:

I would give a very, very high priority to mental readiness, because it applies to your overall knowledge, experience, and overall preparation for this given event. It’s everything. It’s the confidence of knowing that you have done everything that can be done before you go in there, that you have prepared yourself as well as you possibly can, and that you know you can do it (Elite Cardiac Surgeon)

This is the core of readiness Terry Orlick describes in his article: seek or create learning and performance opportunities, develop essential skills necessary to your pursuit; plan, practice, and prepare; perform to capacity via pre-performance routine, have a path to fulfill your destiny, and relax.

Readiness begins with knowing what is required of us in every contingency related to our area of practice.  We then create a plan of study, practice, and performance.  We create a pre-performance routine that we perform with each practice.  We can visual a path through the steps of our plan to the fulfillment of our destiny.  We learn how to relax into our practice, and into our performance.

Champions learn to make every minute count.  They don’t take time off for TV, or for drunken routs, or romantic affairs.  When they do, you know a fall is imminent.

They are committed to their vision, fueled by their belief in their ability, which comes of their slow but steady accomplishments in their practice and their performance.

We who are ordinary can learn from their success, and find our own path to accomplishment.

Practice with Positive Imagery

Another spoke in the “Wheel of Excellence” is positive images.  Here is a quote from the Zone Of Excellence website:

When you are parachuting, you have an emergency procedure to go through… depending on what kind of failure you have with your parachute. You’ve only got a few seconds to go through that matrix… I spent a great deal of time visualizing the scenarios and it happened to me. And it’s incredible because you’ve got that matrix down flat, you just go through it. And by four hundred feet I had the problem solved and I didn’t die. And so you get down on the ground and you go – – I won. You touched death and you won. (Astronaut)

I have a really vivid imagination for things I dread, but not for things I want to happen, especially for the minutiae of life.  I can’t imagine reviewing that astronaut’s matrix over and over in my mind the way he did.

I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a senior in high school, i.e., for over thirty years.  And yet I don’t really feel like I’m any “better” now than when I began.  At the same time, I’ve never really “visualized” myself going through a perfect yoga routine.  What would that experience feel like?  What would it look like through my eyes as I move from posture to posture?

I especially struggle with the balancing postures, even the most basic.  But yesterday I tried to visualize in my mind’s eye what it would feel like to do the posture perfectly, and I did notice a difference.

I think in the past I have thought, “If I want the benefits of yoga, then it’s better to do the yoga rather than visualize it in my mind.”

Could I have been wrong?

Practice with Focus

I’ve been working my way through the “Wheel of Excellence,” and today I want to talk about focus.

Here is some of what Terry Orlick says about focus:

Focusing is the single most important mental skill associated with performance excellence. Focusing refers to the ability to concentrate totally on what you are doing, seeing, reading, hearing, learning, feeling, observing   or experiencing while you are engaged in the activity or performance.

Where your focus goes, everything else follows. Focus leads activation, anxiety, relaxation, learning, mental readiness, personal growth and performance excellence. Let it lead wisely.

I feel like I’ve been distracted most of my life.  When I was studying for the actuarial exams, I would frequently get up from the study room to get a cup of coffee, or use the restroom.  But I would notice a certain few who never got up the entire time they were in there.  Those few generally did well on the exams.

Oftentimes it seems like we want to be distracted from our practice.  Even while we practice we watch TV, or listen to music, or an audio book, etc.

Notice that focus is most important for performance excellence:  the execution of the practiced goal for before a live audience: running a race, taking a test, playing a recital, etc.

Again, while taking the actuarial exams, I can remember reading that you should take practice exams under conditions as nearly the same as those you will be tested under as possible.

You want a rhythm and ritual to your practice, by which you can gather your focus and minimize distractions at game time.

The regular practice of three kriyas from Kundalini Yoga has helped me focus: Ganpati Kriya, Radiant Body Kriya, and Kirtan Kriya.  These all involve chanting, and certain mudras of the fingers.  The first takes 11 minutes (first thing in the morning), the second about 40 minutes (midday), and the third about 30 minutes (evening).  They have given my emotions some ballast, and have improved both my patience and my ability to concentrate.