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.

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.

Belief out of Practice

According to Terry Orlick, the first two elements of excellence are commitment and belief.  They form the axel around which the wheel of excellence rolls.

Again, he shares a couple of quotes with us:

I was really confident. I knew I was good enough, that if I put everything together, I could win. But I wasn’t really thinking that. I was thinking how I would put it all together (Olympic Champion)

 The focus is so clear that you shut your thoughts off and you trust yourself and believe in yourself.  You’ve already prepared for years and years. All you do is go, it’s very natural. (Kerrin Lee Gartner Olympic Champion – Alpine Skiing)

And again, this doesn’t describe me.  But I have noticed some things.

I don’t wonder whether I’ll be able to keep exercising.  Sure, I miss a day or two here and there, but I generally exercise every day.  I look forward to it, expect it to happen, and make time for it to happen.

And I don’t even think about reading books anymore.  It’s like the air I breathe.  I’m always listening to, or reading, books.  Whenever there’s a spare moment, or I’m doing a “mindless” activity like folding laundry, then I’m reading a book.

When I began this blog, I wasn’t sure I would have anything to say about practice beyond the first few posts.  Now I’m beginning to believe that if I just sit down and do the work, the post will come.

The practice builds belief.  The more I practice, the more I believe.

And if I have someone to practice with, then we feed off one another’s belief, positive or negative.  So I want to practice with someone whose belief edifies my own, and make sure I reciprocate.  That doesn’t necessarily mean our beliefs are the same; just that one doesn’t poison the other.

We want our belief to grow in a positive direction, and to encourage that positive growth in others.

Trust Your Practice

There will be days when your practice seems futile, when all your work feels like cutting diamonds with a blunt instrument.  You write down a plan, take your measurements, practice the cuts, and then your first cleaving strike shatters the stone into a million worthless flakes.

Failure is part of the practice.  Failure is the feedback that makes your practice better.

It is perseverance that changes your blunt instrument into a razor’s edge.  It is perseverance that changes your frustration into the patience necessary for the tree that is you to blossom and bear fruit.

The hardest part of practice is trusting in its efficacy, even as your progress flattens out, as it inevitably will.

Look at figure 38.1 (actually the first figure in the paper) in this link to Ericsson’s paper, “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance”.  Notice the curve labeled “Expert Performance.”  That curve appears logarithmic to me.

Suppose the trajectory of expertise is logarithmic.  If the 10,000 hour rule is true (it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert), and we take the base 10 logarithm of 10,000, then we get log10(10,000)=4 to be the benchmark or threshold of expertise.

Now notice that log10(10)=1, log10(100)=2, log10(1000)=3, and log10(10,000)=4.  In other words, just 10 hours of deliberate practice yields 25% of the skill of an expert, 100 hours yield 50% of the skill, and 1000 hours 75% of the skill.

It takes another 9,000 hours of deliberate practice to acquire the last 25% of skill required to become an expert.  Can it be that it takes nine times the practice to be an expert that it does to be merely competent?  Perhaps that’s why so few of us are experts.

Progress beyond 1,000 hours comes extremely slowly.  It takes more than determination to be an expert.  It takes faith and hope; the faith that your practice is making you better, even when is no visible sign that it is, and the hope of finally mastering that which brings you joy.

A Model of Practice

Models are an abstraction of reality.  A model well made can help us understand how the thing modeled works, or how things modeled work together, or provide us with a lab for experimenting or practicing new things without real world consequences.

A model can be as simple as a thought experiment, such as Einstein chasing a beam of light.  Or it can be as complicated as the computational models used for whole genome shotgun sequencing.

What does this have to do with practice?

Models help us understand things, especially with regard to inputs and outputs, with cause and effect, with observation and inference.

Building a good model requires careful observation.  Careful observation involves using as many of the senses as possible, measuring the inputs and outputs, describing qualities, and noticing changes.

The flight simulators used by the military and airlines are nothing but carefully designed models that replicate the cockpit experience of flying as closely as possible.

We can put these ideas to work in our own practice.  Consider recording the time you begin practice, and the time you stop.  Were there any distractions?  Was there any noticeable progress?  Try to describe the experience as closely as possible.  What kept you from practice?  What structures could you put in place to make avoiding practice more difficult?

Are you more likely to practice if you do it first thing in the morning, or as soon as you get home from work?  Are there certain rituals you can invoke that prepare your mind and body for practice?  If a practice goes particularly well, or poorly, get out your practice journal and try to describe what was different.

Try to write a succinct statement of what a perfect practice looks like and feels like.  Include any rituals of approach, of warming up, of cooling down, and writing down any insights gained from your practice.

Build a flight simulator of your own.

Seeking Feedback

The feedback we can give ourselves is limited by our perspective.  The light of our own knowledge and understanding casts shadows that only the light from another consciousness can see into.

Even something as seemingly objective as “doing 21 pushups” might be seen differently in the eyes of a personal trainer than from our own perspective down on the floor counting them off.

Sometimes just getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at a problem, a process, or an impression of me can provide an immediate epiphany or insight.

So if we really want to improve our practice, we are going to want to seek out others to provide us with feedback on what we’re doing, hopefully from someone who has already mastered what we ourselves are trying to master.

Depending on the degree of technical expertise required this can be fairly hard to do.  Do we go to school, hire ourselves a teacher, or seek out a mentor?  Sometimes I find it more helpful to talk with another practitioner, some like myself who is on the practice path to mastery.

Particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships, getting outside feedback is critical to improving our ability to listen, to speak, and to be empathic.  In fact, relating to others is a hard thing to practice alone.

When you ask for feedback, expect a bitter draft.  Others see our faults more readily than we do.  And people speak more readily of things negative than they do the positive.  Even so, accept it gratefully knowing you can improve your practice and your relationships thereby.

Don’t try to justify yourself, or take insult at faults found.  Remember that you asked for it, and that the critic has blessed with feedback as well as criticism.  Only let it reflect on your behavior and not on yourself.  If you’ve performed poorly, it is behavior that can be changed and improved; it does not mean you are a bad person.