Today, thanks to a friend's share on Facebook, I read a great article on practice and how simply practicing isn't enough to achieve mastery. I recommend that you read it here: Not All Practice Makes Perfect by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
I found the article to be simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. Their main take away is that practicing with focus and purpose improves your skills sometimes to the point of doing what might seem impossible or has never been done before. That's pretty cool and we see it frequently enough with people who break records in sports or invent new things. Practice and improvement is what brings them to greatness in their field.
Encouragingly, what they call "purposeful practice" is perfectly possible for anyone who wants to do it. There are three main points explained in the article:
- Make long term goals and reach them by taking baby steps towards them
- Get feedback on your practice so you can adjust and correct for improvement
- Move beyond your comfort zone to challenge yourself
I have done this recently with bicycling.
When we moved to Chiba, I was petrified to ride a bicycle. Six months later, I find myself cruising along with more power and less fear. My long term goal is to be able to ride all the way to the beach at Kamogawa and back (about 16 km one-way). I'm not there yet, but I have hit a key intermediate goal of riding alone to the market about halfway to the beach. My baby steps included short rides to and from local spots like Satoyama Design Factory and the post office. Tod gave me feedback about how to ride more effectively - focus on cadence, make good use of gearing, and encouraged me to get out and ride to build muscle memory. His feedback helped me to ride to the market with Tod many times. I set and met another small goal when I climbed the biggest hill without having to get off my bike. We took a few rides off the usual route that I considered extra challenges to push me out of my comfort zone. And finally I got myself to the market alone. So now I need to break down the remainder of the ride to the beach into small steps. And after that, I will set a new long term goal - maybe a ride into the mountains. Eventually I expect to become a proficient and even skilled cyclist.
My biking example was done from necessity but it came naturally to create small goals along the way to a bigger one. I find it encouraging to see that this process works. Hurrah!
And here is where the discouraging part comes into play for me.
I do too many things. Thanks to years of experience, I'm adequate or even "pretty good" at many of them. Real mastery and skill, though, requires time. I can't see how I can possibly practice all my activities to a level of being properly skillful in them. There is always SO MUCH to practice, and I have trouble focussing when I do. If I am juggling, shouldn't I be hooping? I love to draw but certainly yoga is better for my health in the long run. Singing brings me pleasure, but wouldn't I be wiser to focus on a skill that could earn me an income? Anyway, because I don't practice anything with commitment and purpose, I have stalled on all of my things at a level that is becoming dissatisfying.
Should I make a decision to drop some of them? To specialise? Frankly, that seems boring. And that is my disappointment and difficulty. If I stick to a wide range of abilities, I rarely get really good at anything. I have come to terms with that over and over and over through the years. Being a generalist has many benefits. Now that I find myself in close contact with people who have specialised in a craft (all of my incredible neighbors and collaborators), I am feeling inadequate.
Can I just practice everything more, somehow? Maybe in rotation: Mondays for music, Tuesdays for yoga, Wednesdays for circus, Thursdays for art, Fridays for writing, Saturdays for... Is it possible to be that disciplined? What if I've forgotten something? I used to make jewelry, to cook, to edit video. How do backstage performance arts get practiced? Curriculum development? How do I fit in all the other things that require my attention like gardening or laundry?
Perhaps I need a time machine, extra lives and a clone. Or I could try to lower my standards and develop more patience.
Honestly, I am not sure what solution is going to be easiest to achieve: rigorous practice, impossible technology, or personal growth. Maybe I'll just go have a nap now.