The End of Practice

Why do we practice?

I first began to learn to practice when I began to play football.  I was skinny, weak, and slow.  I didn’t play much, and didn’t play well when I did.

The shame of it drove me to exercise, and the anger of the shame made me work hard.  I got bigger, stronger, and faster.  I played more, and played better when I did.

My best friend got kicked off the team for smoking at the end of my junior year in high school, and I quit out of despair.  I decided I wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and practiced yoga and karate.  I suppose I wanted power.

I went to college.  All the things I was interested in were very mathematical (besides writing of course.  I couldn’t possibly earn a living as a writer.).  The only problem was I wasn’t very good at math.  I hated math through grade school and junior high.  It seemed the most tedious subject on earth.

I decided I’d better get good at math, so I could learn the things I was interested in.  I discovered mathematical beauty, and changed my major.  I worked hard, did well, and made some friends with others so enamored.

One of my math buddies turned me on to the Russian authors, and I fell in love with books.  Ten years later I discovered audio books, and I spent the rest of my mundane moments in the ether of words.

My practice hasn’t made me an expert; it hasn’t even made me a master.  But it has made me happy.

Blessed Are the Ordinary

Blessed are the ordinary, for they are accepted and complete in Jesus.

Does that raise your hackles?  Sounds like heresy doesn’t it?  “Good enough isn’t good enough!  Don’t settle for anything less than excellence!”  After all, this blog is supposed to be about practice right?  About getting better?

The work of the enneagram is embracing the shadow, the part of ourselves we wish to deny; the part we hide from the light, from the gaze of the other, from the eye of God.  The grace of God has redeemed the shadow, as well as the False Self, the mask we forge to face the world.  By grace we are saved through faith into a single whole, our genuine self, an ordinary person.

Accepting who I am, the “bad” with the “good,” has been the most blessed and powerful experience God has ever given to me – the blessing of being ordinary.

The greatest gift God has given me is the gift of self-acceptance.  If everything I do has to be extraordinary, then nothing I do is good enough.  If nothing I do is good enough, then I must be a bad person; a fig tree that bears no fruit, fit only to be cast into the fire.

It’s hard to practice when I’m plagued by those kinds of thoughts.

We don’t despise a bouquet of roses because they look like every other.  We accept them gratefully as beautiful.

The odd thing is that being ordinary allows me to write, allows me to meditate, and allows me to practice.  If I am accepted and complete in Jesus, then I can gratefully bear the fruit God has given me knowing it is enough.

Shaming children who fall short of the 10,000 hour rule may be the road to greatness, but it is not the road to blessedness.  Enjoy the work of your hands, and with it bless the world, even when it’s only ordinary.

What Practice Isn’t

My practice is writing a 250 word essay every day; not a research paper, not a novel, and not a book review.  While that might not seem like much of a distinction, it’s important for me to keep in mind, because if I don’t remember what my practice is I will quickly get lost in what it isn’t.

I want my reading to inform my writing, but not dictate it.  I want my interests to guide my research, but take care that my research doesn’t kill my interest.

One of the pitfalls of deliberate practice is that we can be so concerned about practicing the right way that we lose sight of the practice itself.  That is, I’d rather listen to Dory (Finding Nemo) and keep on swimming than stop swimming because I might not be swimming the “right” way.

The last few days I’ve been trying boil down an enormous tomb of research into a 250 word essay.  It totally put the brakes on my writing.  I want to continue chewing on that tomb, and hopefully it will inform my future posts, but I can’t stop writing just because I haven’t digested it yet.

I have to continually remind myself what the heart of my practice is and make sure I do that core every single day.  One of my favorite books is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  He elegantly and hilariously describes this inner struggle with resistance, the greatest obstacle to practice.  And nothing is more important or difficult than sitting down to practice that thing we’ve been called to do every single working day…one of the strangest ironies of life.

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.