Life in the Slow Lane

When I was a young man I was always in a hurry.  I drove in the left lane, rode the tail of anyone driving “too slow,” and was impatient in traffic.  I got lots of tickets, and paid high insurance premiums.

Now middle-aged, I find myself in the slow lane most of the time.  I give myself plenty of time to get where I’m going, and listen to a book along the way.  When the traffic is slow, I wait.  When it moves swiftly, I go with it.

I like living in the slow lane.  I take time to reflect.  I do work that is deeply satisfying to me.  I focus on the work itself, rather than the status of my particular vocation or job title.

In the slow lane, less is more: less stuff, more relationships; less status, more significance; less travel, more walks in the parks.  It means having enough to share, and enough time for family and friends; it means having enough time to figure out what’s important to you, and making the time to do it.  You learn to find what’s real good for free.

When I lived in the fast lane I was in a constant state of stress.  I felt anxious without knowing what I was anxious about.  I continually measured my own life against the lives of others.

It’s easy to confuse status with doing good work, or living well.  It’s human nature to want the respect of our fellow human beings, particularly our peer group.  So much so that marketers have become expert at turning that need for respect into a desire to buy their product; we’ve come to associate those products with the thing itself.  That is, if we have the right job title, drive the right car, wear the right clothes, and travel to the right places then we must be successful.  If we don’t, then we’re not.

Living in the slow lane is very simple and very difficult.  It’s as simple as being aware of what’s driving your need for status, and as difficult as letting go of it.

The Dilettante’s Tapestry

How does the dilettante compete with the expert?  How do we turn our depth of experience into something that might provide a viable alternative to a highly specialized and focused expertise?

I suspect that in order to compete with the experts we need to find a way to turn our multifarious interests into a unified whole.

Suppose we consider our dilettante from yesterday, who had 1,000 hours of deliberate practice in each of math, dance, drawing, history, and meditation.  If she tries to compete with say mathematicians on the same single axis who have maybe 5,000 to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, then she is going to have a tough time keeping up.

But if instead of competing with them directly, she combines her interest in math with her interest in drawing to help those other more specialized mathematicians in her department visualize their work, or turn their abstract concepts into a visual that lay people can understand, now she has a real value-added skill that bridges people who work in one domain with those who work in another.

She can use her interest in history to use examples from the past to deal with problems in the present, or use them as allegories that both technical and nontechnical people can relate to.

She could use her interest in dance to build the social capital of the groups with whom she works.  I mean let’s face it geeks don’t often dance.  But once they overcome their fear of dancing by someone teaching them how to dance in a safe place, not only will they find themselves having fun but will discover another avenue for relating with people.  It builds teamwork.

If she shares her interest in meditation with her group, she could both increase their collective ability to concentrate and to deal with stress, making her team much more happy and productive.

Just look at all the value our dilettante has added to her place of work!  And just by venturing out along each axis of her interests and finding ways to bring them into her work, she has taken leading roles in her company.  By looking for ways to weave the threads of our interests into a desirable and useful whole, we can satisfy the needs of others as well as our own.

The Dilettante’s Practice

How does a dilettante turn the 10,000 hour rule into a viable practice for herself?  The dilettante’s dilemma is that she is too interested in too many things to devote herself to only one of them.  She is a liberally educated vocational ignoramus.

Take heart, those of you insulted by my last remark; I walk among you, am one of you.

In one of Ericsson’s papers on deliberate practice and expertise, he gives a graph of expertise which looks logarithmic to me.  That is, the levels of skill that result from the accumulated hours of deliberate practice appear to me to be logarithmically related to the number of those accumulated hours of practice.  Intuitively this makes sense to me; our skill level tends to increase rapidly in the beginning, but then begins to plateau.  Even so, the logarithm is a monotonically increasing function.

Suppose that this function is in fact logarithmic.  The base ten log of 10,000 hours is four, while that of 1,000 hours is 3.  In other words, if this relation were in fact to hold true, then 1,000 hours of deliberate practice would yield 75% of the skill level of an expert.  Might this level of skill be competent?

Now consider our dilettante again.  Suppose she were to practice in domains orthogonal to one another; that is, one domain casts little, if any shadow upon another.  For example, math casts quite a long shadow on physics, but hardly any at all on dance apart from rhythm.

Suppose she had four or five of these orthogonal domains of practice in which she was “competent,” that is, had one thousand hours of deliberate practice in each; say math, dance, drawing, history, and meditation.  Consider what her experience of the world is like, its richness and depth, versus the world of the violinist who has given 10,000 hours of her life to the deliberate practice of the violin.  Could it be like the difference between Flatland and the world we live in?

What price glory?

When Life Gets in the Way of Practice

Life is often turbulent, and the water gets rougher with each passing year. Some days it feels like there is no calm water, that there are only rapids, waterfalls, and hydraulics.

How do you practice when CHAOS screws up your day; or week; or month?

One thing that helps me is that my “maintenance practices” are rather short, so that even when life gets crazy, there’s really no excuse for me not getting them done.  These include:

  1.  ganpati kriya in the morning (11 minutes), followed immediately by the Five Tibetans (about 7 minutes);
  2. around midday I do sat kriya (4 minutes), pray (4 minutes), and some yoga or calisthenics of some sort (5 to 30 minutes);
  3. and kirtan kriya in the evening (12 minutes).

That probably doesn’t sound like much; in terms of “hard work” it isn’t. But it keeps me feeling good, fit enough, and healthy enough; enough for me.

Another thing that helps me is to prioritize my practices. I’m a stay-at-home dad, so maintenance practices come first, then household, writing, the mechanics of blogging (page design, etc.), research, and modeling (like statistical models).

Do first things first, and accept that last things can’t always be done today.

My daughter has had a headache since last Wednesday. As I write, we are at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital. This has definitely been a white water day: doctor appointment, chiropractor appointment, my own appointment, and now the ER. In between I’ve managed to fit in the maintenance practices, organize storage in the basement, and type this post in the waiting room.

Life isn’t all about getting things done. My daughter is much more important than any practice.  But the practices help me be a better father, and getting these small wins in the midst of chaos make me feel confident of a better tomorrow.

Fallen from Practice

I’m a big believer in practicing every day, at the same time and the same place.

I just don’t do it.  That’s probably why I’m a dilettante and not an expert.

I do try.  But invariably I have a late night out with friends, or take a trip out of town, or just don’t want to practice; so I don’t.

This is where the planning ritual becomes important:

  1. Reviewing my vision reminds me of what kind of person I want to be, of what kind of life I want to live.
  2. Reviewing my goals reminds me of what I want to accomplish.
  3. Reviewing my projects reminds me of what it will take to accomplish those goals.
  4. And reviewing my tasks reminds me of the habits required to complete my projects.

By the end of that process I am generally motivated enough to climb back on my horse and start riding in the direction of my vision again.

I once found it difficult to look myself in the mirror of my plans once I’d fallen out of practice.  It made me feel like a failure.

I’d go for months without looking.  By then I’d be out of shape, out of tune, and feeling a great deal of stress.  The stress would drive me to look for a solution, which in turn would bring me back to my plans and to practice.

I’ve decided I’d rather feel like a failure occasionally than to actually be a failure perpetually.  So I plan – daily.

Deliberately Gentle Practice

There’s a lot of buzz now about deliberate practice, and rightfully so.  It’s the kind of practice that leads to expertise.

Deliberate practice is goal directed.  It provides the practitioner with feedback: you did this well, you struggled with that.  It focuses on the stuff you struggle with, and consequently it’s difficult.  You do that hard stuff again and again till you get it right. 

I am not an expert.  Don’t get the idea that I’m writing this blog because I am.  I’m writing this blog because I have struggled with practice all of my life, and because I’m convinced nearly everything worthwhile in life comes out of some kind of practice.

When I was young I hated to run.  I would set myself a goal to go out and run five miles, or maybe 40 forty yard wind sprints.  I’d be in agony, and probably not finish.  The next day I’d find a reason not to do it.

When I was in college one of my roommates, a guy who had won the state cross country championship, had a book called The Zen of Running.  I picked it up one day and opened it up to a page that read something like this: “Just go out and run.  Feel the joy of it.  And when you don’t enjoy it anymore, stop.

This one idea totally revolutionized my practice: practice as long as you enjoy it, and when you stop enjoying it, go on to something else.

I began to run – regularly.  Instead of dreading the run, I began to look forward to it.  It was a joyful experience, particularly if it was a bright sunny day.  I would go for a run, and immediately the tensions of the day would begin to melt away.

Now I have never won a race, but I did learn to make running a regular part of my day, a practice.  And my life was much better for it.