By Liz Massey, June 2018 Issue.
The title of this column can be interpreted in one of two ways. Many of you have probably heard of the phrase “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” offered as the definition of insanity. And if you are trapped in a toxic relationship, saddled with a bad job, or caught in the throes of an addiction, expecting different results from the same actions is, indeed, insane.
However, there is one way in which repeating actions over and over CAN lead to different results. That comes when you dedicate yourself to improving your skills in an area, and decide to commit to the practice of a particular discipline in order to make that happen. Studies from the spheres of education, the arts and sports reveal that deliberate, intentional practice can improve your fluency, accuracy and endurance of whatever it is at which you want to get better. Over the years, I’ve committed myself to practicing long-distance running, playing the trumpet, singing in a chorus, writing, journaling and a host of other skills. I do not practice all of them now, but each one has taught me something about discipline and mastery.
Practice and its goal of mastery are concepts that are in dire need of celebration currently. Author and professor Tom Nichols, in his 2017 book “The Death of Expertise,” provides a scathing indictment of the downsides of today’s digital culture. While the internet and advancing technology have democratized fields such as publishing and broadcasting, the last generation also has been characterized by a rapid erosion of respect for experts in every field. In many cases, people now substitute their feelings or beliefs in place of verifiable, objective expertise. Nichols writes, “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge, and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.”
Nichols’ words have import for all people involved in reform/resistance movements, including those within our LGBTQ community. Protest can be powerful, and that power is amplified when would-be activists prepare themselves fully for what they are about to do. Civil rights activists in the 1960s rehearsed how they would respond to brutality by police and onlookers; before that, activists such as Rosa Parks were learning nonviolent resistance tactics from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. A more recent protest “curriculum” can be studied by reviewing the website (and book) Beautiful Trouble and similar types of media.
If you have an area of your life where you aspire to do more or perform better, committing to a specific form of practice can help. Some tips for developing a “practice mindset” to facilitate this venture include:
Pick a specific practice.
Find an activity about which you’re passionate about or to which you are consistently drawn. You can become good at anything, but not everything.
Expect to make messy mistakes at first.
In the words of Phoenix-based trainer and life coach Quinn McDonald, “Practicing anything is frustrating. It’s not fun. But it works. What you don’t know makes you feel incompetent. But you’ll stay incompetent until you practice.”
Commit to daily action.
Your daily practice doesn’t have to take mammoth amounts of time, but it does have to become baked into your schedule. See if you can break down larger skills into tiny bits you can practice in micro-moments (instead of social media sometimes?).
Find a mentor.
One of the keys that many people miss about practice is that it’s not enough to rehearse your actions over and over – you have to find ways to improve your actions. A coach/trainer/sensei/teacher can give you invaluable feedback on technique and specific skills.
Practice smart, not just hard.
One of the main benefits of learning from a skilled teacher is that they can give you pinpointed advice on what you need to focus on to improve. That way, you don’t spend hours over-rehearsing things that you have already mastered.
Committing to a practice matters because the way we choose to live our lives matters. Blogger Leo Babauta, who runs a popular site called Zen Habits, puts it this way: “There is no perfect way of life, and you don’t need to strive to be perfect every moment of the day. … [Practice] is just about conscious action, which is a useful skill to have. Remember that we become good at what we repeatedly do, and what we do repeatedly can be done consciously. It’s when we’re conscious that we are truly alive.”