This is the first of a six-part series on creating practices in your life and putting them to work for you.
I took piano lessons when I was a kid. For many years, actually. And I enjoyed them. I liked playing the piano.
But the thing I didn’t like doing was practicing.
When faced with the idea of spending time practicing my piano, I’d rather do just about anything else. In fact, I would often do chores (mow the grass, take out the trash, even pick up dog poop—all tasks I disliked) instead of sitting down to do my (what should have ideally been) daily practice.
You’d think from my actions that I disliked the piano, was being forced to learn it, hated doing it. None of those were true. I enjoyed the piano (and although I haven’t played much lately, I still enjoy it). Now, that doesn’t mean I wanted to practice instead of playing outside, or reading a good book, or watching Marvel superhero cartoons after school.
But as much as I enjoyed playing the piano, I still didn’t like practicing.
Sounded Like Failure
It’s only been recently that I realized that I didn’t like practicing because I didn’t like failing. And practicing piano was all about failing. How many of you have learned an instrument, or have listened to someone else as they’re learning one? Painful, isn’t it? When a person begins, it’s not so bad, because the expectations are low. So as the child is fumbling through the new song, every third note wrong, there’s no expectation that it’ll sound like it’s supposed to.
But as the child improves, the song takes shape, and the notes flow one into the other… She’s making music! we think… until CLANG! A fumble lands a finger on A instead of B-flat, and the whole chord explodes with a dissonance that grates the teeth.
Those were the moments I hated when practicing. I hated those fumbles that turned music into discord—that made me, and anyone listening, wince with the pain of it. I wanted the music to be perfect. All the right notes in the right time.
And so practice was difficult for me, because it put me in that place where the act of working on the craft of playing piano was admitting that I wasn’t perfect. And as a kid, I was big on perfect. (Have been, for a lot of my life. It’s only been recently, in the last couple of years, that I’ve realized just how damaging perfection is, and have taken steps to overcome it.)
So I avoided practicing, even though I knew that doing the practice was what would make me better. Would get me closer to that perfection I was seeking. I practiced when I had to: in preparation for recitals, performances, competitions. But developing a daily practice that would help me learn the craft of piano? Nope. Couldn’t do it.
The Value of Practice
It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really begun to understand the value of practice, and embrace the act of practicing as a window to grace and peace and discovery and blossoming.
1a : carry out, apply <practice what you preach>
1b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually<practice politeness>
1c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine>
2a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act>
2b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
I love the fact that the word practice encompasses four distinct, but related, concepts:
- First, practice is an action, the act of carrying something out. Applying action and intention to a particular task. (Note that this says nothing about the action needing to be perfect—an understanding my young, piano-playing self really could have used.) (1a)
- Second, practice is a habit. It’s something we do consistently and regularly. (1b)
- Third, practice is a means of becoming proficient (or training someone to become proficient in something). (2a–2b)
- And finally, practice is the act of engaging in a profession. Steven Pressfield talks a lot about being a professional in his books The War of Art, Do the Work, and Turning Pro. He says, and I agree, that one becomes a professional by repeatedly showing up and doing the work. Simple as that. (1c)
I love, too, that these concepts are actually steps in the pursuit of a craft, for becoming a professional or expert or artist:
- Take (imperfect) action
- Take action consistently
- Take action consistently to develop proficiency
- Take action consistently to develop proficiency and become (and continue to be) a professional
Action becomes habit, habit becomes proficiency, proficiency becomes excellence. As heroes, as creatives, as artists, we live in each of these phases at various times as we learn (and continue to learn) our crafts.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” –Aristotle
These days, I’ve embraced the art of practice with verve. I look forward to the act of practicing. I enjoy the act of practicing when I’m doing it. I am freed by it. All of this is a complete 180 from those feelings of imprisonment and dread I had for practice when I was a kid.
Why the change?
First (and most importantly for me), practice is about the act, not the result. When I understood this, not just intellectually but emotionally, it represented a huge change for me. When I was able to throw out the old adage “Practice makes perfect”—to throw out the concept of perfect altogether—I was free to focus on the enjoyment of the act of practice itself.
Second, my practice is just for me. Practice is something I do for myself, because it makes me a better person, a person more aligned with my core values. Every time I practice—any of those things that support my core values—I feel one step closer to that person I aspire to be.
Third, my practice benefits others. Although practice is for me, I find that the more I do it, the better person I am, even in ways that aren’t directly related to the subject of the practice itself. I believe that regularly engaging in practices that support my core values makes me a happier, more satisfied, more resilient person—and so I tend to feel happier, act nicer, and treat people better. Cool!
My Three Daily Practices
Three daily practices make up the foundation of my life. They are: meditation, walking, and writing. These are three simple (but not always easy) actions that I take, regularly, which have made tremendous changes in my life (and some in a very short time).
Over the next several posts, I’ll be diving into each of these three practice areas, revealing each in more detail, showing you just how I do them, and explaining how they’ve made positive changes in my life. Check out Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. and Part 5.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your experiences incorporating practices into your daily life, and what positive results you’ve seen because of them. Or maybe you have a new practice you’re thinking of starting. Either way, please share in the comments!
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