Starting Over

One of the drawbacks of working without a plan is that it can be easy to lose sight of what it is you’re trying to accomplish.  You put your head down to finish something that seems both urgent and important, and when you finally come back up for air and take a look around, you discover you are miles away from where you thought you wanted to be.

Something like that has happened to me over the last few months.  An opportunity presented itself, and I set myself an agenda to prove myself worthy of the opportunity.  Part of that agenda included a daily essay written for a particular person associated with that opportunity, and in the process of doing that, I lost sight of writing for this blog.  I apologize to my readers for that.

Regardless of what happens with the opportunity, both writing and practice are going to be big parts of my life.  I want to continue reading and writing about practice, as well as actually doing the practice every day.

Once you stop doing a practice, it can be very hard to get started again.  It’s all about inertia.  Once a body moves in a certain direction, it will continue in that direction until a force is exerted to stop it.  If you’re trying to push a large box across a floor, it’s much easier to do once the box is actually moving than it is while the box is at rest.

So it is with our habits.  It’s much easier to keep a good habit going when you’re doing it every day.  The longer the interval between practices, the harder it will be to keep the practice going.  And if you wait long enough, it will be as though you never practiced at all.

Use it or lose it.

Building a Community of Wisdom

What are we working for?  What is the end of practice?

Some writers, like Buford or Rohr for instance, talk about two halves of life: the first half that seeks success, and the second half that seeks meaning or significance.

I was in middle school when Kung Fu came out.  The fighting got my attention, but it was the mastery and wisdom of the old men that filled my heart with longing.

It is mastery and wisdom I seek now.  I want to seek it in community with other seekers, not alone; much like the monastery in Kung Fu, only one that is in the world and not shut off from it.

Is there a community of “wise ones,” where one can go to be trained in the ways of mastery and wisdom?  Why am I even putting these two words “mastery” and “wisdom” together?

I suspect that the two somehow go together.  That wisdom somehow grows out of the discipline and focus required to pass the trials inevitably required for one to become a master of anything sufficiently difficult.

Does that mean that our community of wise ones should consist of practitioners of the same art?  It could, but I think it could also consist of masters of different arts; that one art could inform another of its own particular species of wisdom; or even masters of science with masters of religion, with masters of the arts.

What if you don’t know any masters to hang out with?  Is it enough to hang out with seekers of wisdom, or seekers of mastery?  How do we build a community of elders, of wisdom?

Could we build such a community ourselves?

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.

Divide and Conquer

In my last post I suggested that a group should divide when it reaches 10 to 12 people in size.  The reason for that division was that the lack of bandwidth available beyond eight people strangles any discussion of ideas.

The fact is most “successful” groups do not want to divide.  The group is successful because the members share an interest, enjoy one another’s company, and develop friendships.  Division threatens all those things.

Most of us have memories of being divided into a group that was “left out” in some way.  If told to divide, people will choose to be with those members of their group that have the most “status.”  That is, those with the most attractive characteristics, such as ability, attitude, gregariousness, etc.  Those with the most status will crowd into one group, leaving those with least status behind in the other.  Folks in the second group are going to feel left out, and are likely to drop out if there is no compulsion to attend.

But if from the beginning the group practices the ideas of talk dancing, bandwidth, and the Occupy Wall Street hand signals, then it is likely that by the time the group is large enough to divide, everyone in the group will have become more confident, more bandwidth-aware, and more like a talk dancer.

If this is true, then randomly dividing the group in two might actually work.  It would take some research to make this determination for certain, but it does seem plausible to me.  Maybe you alphabetize by name and divide in two.

Moreover if the group can meet in a place that can accommodate a few divisions before bursting the walls, then those original ties can be maintained in the committee of the whole while new acquaintance can be deepened in the small group breakout sessions.  And even if the committee of the whole does burst the walls, it could rent out a larger space periodically (say quarterly or annually) to renew those ties that are split by group mitosis.

Think of all the ideas and goodwill that could be mobilized around a mission in a self-organizing and self replicating way: 12, 24, 48, and 96 connected members in just four iterations.  Divide and Conquer.

Practicing the Presence of God

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; (Acts 17:28, KJV)

Several years ago I was turned onto a beautiful book by a friend from church, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monk of the 17th century.  Since then I have tried to make a practice of being aware of God’s presence.

God is inescapable, and his presence is always Here and Now, regardless of where we are or what state we’re in: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there (Ps 139:8, KJV).

In the Bible the Hebrew word ruah means both breath and spirit, as when God, “… formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.” (Ge 2:7, New Living Translation)

So it is natural for me to associate God with my breath, and whenever I want I can come into God’s presence merely by observing my breath and knowing that God is in it, and in me.

Another way to come into God’s presence and into his joy is through praise, “…but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” (Eph 5:18-20, KJV)

This “giving thanks always for all things unto God” is so powerful and so simple a way to come into God’s presence; and it is not just the big things but the little things especially we can take notice of and be grateful for.  Read the poem Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins.  I think this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote those verses in Ephesians.

God’s presence is all around us; all we need to do is take notice to walk with him.

Practicing Through Depression

I struggle from time to time with depression.  Not clinical depression.  It doesn’t prostrate me, and usually doesn’t last long.  But when it takes me my discipline flags and I find it difficult to get things done.

I am a morning person, and generally feel more energetic and productive in the morning.  So I try to schedule my “brain work” in the morning and more mundane tasks in the evening. 

But lately I’ve struggled with that routine.  The morning goes by and I find I’ve got nothing “done,” even though I’ve been working.  Maybe I’m trying to do research for a post, or summarize a book, prep work that takes more time than a morning will allow. 

If several days go by without making a post (and lately there have been many), I have a growing sense of anxiety and disgust with my lack of productivity.  Moreover there is little I can point to by way of evidence to my wife that I have been working.  If the days of depression drag on long enough, they can put me in bed.

I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I have a number of mundane tasks around the house that I am responsible for.  When the black dog takes me, if I can keep myself moving by doing these more mundane tasks, then the accomplishment of them begins to shore up my self-esteem.  I grow confident again that I can in fact get things done.  And my wife has evidence that I have in fact been working, and not just staring at the television or talking with friends.

This week I am making an experiment with my routine and scheduling the housework in the morning.  By noon I should be done, and have the rest of the afternoon to work on the blog, confident that I have already got my housework done.

How do you fight through your depression?

The Talk Dancer


I have described conversations as one person in a group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea; then the next person in the group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea, and so on.

You may reply that conversations don’t actually occur in the way I’ve described.  For example, in a group of 12 people maybe one person has an idea, and only two have a response.  I would argue that everyone in the group has an idea, and everyone has a response.  But that some don’t give voice to either.

That brings me to an idea I’ve been wrestling with for years:  the talk dancer.

The talk dancer is someone who brings everyone in the group onto the conversational dance floor.  He is able to fill an uncomfortable silence with an interesting idea or question that provokes conversation without dominating it; he is able to make those present feel safe enough to participate, and draw ideas or responses from those who are reticent.

For a group to thrive it needs a talk dancer.

I think one of the problems with dividing a group is that if one half does not have a talk dancer, then chances are that the half without a talk dancer will wither and die.  And because talk dancers are such stimulating people to be around, everyone wants to be in the talk dancer’s group.

Moreover I think talk dancers are drawn to other talk dancers because they both share a love for good conversation.  If the group divides, the talk dancers will probably want to be in the same group.  So to add insult to injury, when the group divides one group will likely have all the talk dancers, while the other group has none.

I have not quite figured out how to deal with this dilemma.  I’ve thought about having a secret ballot, and have each person in the group nominate the other persons in the group they think are talk dancers, then have the two with the most votes separate to form new groups.  Or perhaps rank everyone in the group, and sort the odds into one group and the evens into another.  But I’ve never put these ideas to the test.