The Art of Practice
August 14, 2009
As I grow older, it becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not automatically getting better. I struggle with the same things I’ve always struggled with, I do the same things I’ve always done, and the only things I get better at are the things involving work. This might seem unsurprising to some of you, but it’s a bit of a revelation for me. Adolescence, I think, fooled me: I woke up one morning and discovered that I was stronger, taller, better looking, and more confident. Hormones had kicked in. And I rode a multi-year rocket toward adulthood, feeling inevitably propelled toward great things. It wasn’t until I was in the Peace Corps, struggling with tremendous insecurity, social anxiety, and all sorts of things I thought I’d left behind in Junior High that I realized: oh—I’m still that kid under here.
I’m almost thirty, and some things in life have worked out really well. But I realize, more and more, that I’m still that kid. I’m still insecure, unintentionally rude, self-centered, and not terribly good at a lot of things. And I had two cavities when I went to the dentist because I didn’t floss every day.
I’ve decided it’s time to face up to the facts: 99% of the people who are good at things are good not because goodness showed up at their door, rang the doorbell, and left a basket with blanket-wrapped goodness on the welcome mat, but because they learned how to work at it. Sure: 1% of these people are just naturally talented in the way that my voice just changed one day when I was 14. But screw those guys: they’re the freaks, the outliers. Normative human excellence is not about talent, it is about the art of practice.
Talent gets conflated with excellence a lot of times because talent can be the boost that gets us practicing. My facility with language made me like reading at a young age, but it was the habit of constant reading that deposited me in my AP English class in High School with a broad vocabulary and intimate familiarity with language’s power of expression. Sadly, I chose to credit myself with talent when I found myself one of the best writers in an unusually poor public High School. I thought I had a spark, an alchemical fountain of inspiration bubbling inside my soul that turned my words to gold as I set them on paper. As a result, not only did I fail to develop the habits of reading that had given me a relative excellence, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of those habits, let alone their importance. As a result, while many of my peers were working hard at their writing in college, developing habits of greater attention and diligence in composing their thoughts, I was wasting time doing whatever pleased me, assuming that I was a Good Writer. As a result, my essay scores steadily declined and after I graduated, I read much of the writing of my peers and wondered, brow furrowed in self-pitying consternation, when they had all gotten so goddamn talented.
Happily, there were some habits of practice that I developed without realizing it. A student job as webmaster at college helped drive my hobby of making personal webpages. The thing about webpages is that you can produce something interesting and personally rewarding at virtually any level of skill. My designs went from bloody awful to awful to pretty damn bad to pretty bad and on up, but it didn’t feel that way to me: every design made me feel like I’d expressed something. This habit of practice has ended up being one of the most significant aspects of my life: it has determined my career.
If talent was involved in this process, it was involved in a minor way: it helped me enjoy putting together a webpage even when I could only make something that was, objectively, very poor. Perhaps it was talent that let me derive pleasure from the details of HTML, tedium that another person might have to push through and therefore do less often, but that I returned to regularly.
I am tempted, now, to call myself a born-again believer in practice. I’m terrible at nurturing the ability to practice. I think many people are, to some degree, but I ask you to believe me when I say that I possess a particularly acute lack in this regard. I can’t help but feel optimistic, though, the more clearly I articulate this to myself. It means I can stop riding the ego roller coaster as I go from things I’m good at to things I’m bad at: it’s not about my talent. Talent is bullshit. It does mean, however, that the next step on anything I want to improve is just work.
Here, again, though, it’s not so bad: the main thing is not to exert tremendous effort, it’s to exert continuing effort over time. Which is easy to say. How do I do it?
All this is why I’m spending time these days thinking about what I call the Art of Practice. It’s learning the ability to work continuously at things, to put aside the ridiculous desire for immediate, effortless results, to learn to seek and find the quotidian rewards in self-improvement.
Right now I’ve got a white belt: I attend my drawing classes every week and have shouting, brawling chaos going on in my head most of the time. GOD, YOU SUCK AT THIS — THIS IS TOO HARD — I WISH I WERE AS GOOD AS THAT GUY — GIVE UP, MAN, YOU’RE EMBARRASSING YOURSELF, followed by NO SHUT UP IT TAKES A WHILE — FAILURE IS OKAY — OF COURSE IT’S HARD, THINGS WORTH DOING ARE HARD — THE GOAL IS NOT TO BE AWESOME NOW BUT TO PUT YOURSELF ON A PATH OF IMPROVEMENT.
In other words: it’s no kind of graceful balance as of yet. But I’ve made some progress. I’ve flossed every day for the last four months. Remembering to do that’s gotten pretty easy. And you know what? I’m proud of myself.