The Beauty And Wonder Of Practice
From self-conscious action to improvisational mastery, we can learn to do anything we want to do.
I’m not someone who wakes up on Monday, hating Mondays, hating my job, hating what I do. I’ve never had a job like that. Somehow, I’ve always found something to like about my job. At the moment, my day job is as a software engineer. I help other IT professionals with the software they use to monitor high-end storage equipment. If I could make a living as a writer, I’d do that. But for now, I’m a software engineer. It’s not writing, but I found something to like about it because I practiced it and got to be pretty good at it.
When I started out, I was self-conscious about everything I was doing. I made tons of mistakes, nothing critical that would cost me my job, just errors of efficiency. Errors that made me slower. Errors that took time to correct. I had never worked a job like this before when I started, and for the first 9 months, I spent a lot of time finding my way.
From the beginning, I had to explore the interfaces I was given for the work. I had to see what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what was expected of me, and when I should ask for help. I went from self-conscious confusion to competence. Over the years, I developed a mastery of my work through practice.
A really big factor in my journey was that I was given enough room to fail, to make mistakes. Then I’d get feedback, adjust my routines and get better at it. Through repetition, I made thousands of tiny improvements to my procedures and methods. I became familiar with the computer programs that we used for our work. We used Outlook, Word, and Excel, but most of the applications I used were custom-built browser-based apps. I learned my way around web forms and the databases behind them, and the tab key became my friend in a paperless office.
With practice, I went from being self-conscious about my work to being competent with my work, to conscientious mastery. And with mastery, I began to find the edges of my work. I experimented and improvised with my work because I understood certain limits and boundaries to each task in my work. I learned what I could experiment with and how not to make mistakes that were fatal to my job. Practice also includes knowing how to get help when I was stuck.
I’ve been a writer all my life. I wrote my first short story in elementary school. I can still remember reading that story to the class while sitting by the teacher’s desk. Back then, “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a thing and I wrote a short story based on that idea, but this story was about a bionic boy sewn together after a frightful accident. I still remember how the kids in my class cried while I read that story. That was the first clue that I might have a talent for writing.
But I didn't practice writing. I was not encouraged by anyone in my life including my parents to write. And back then, it was a pencil and paper, baby. I hated writing essays for sometimes I realized I had made a mistake and I’d have to write a page all over again. So I put it on a shelf for a few years.
Along comes the computer revolution and I’m a young adult with a word processor program in my Commodore Amiga computer. I took a few college courses thinking that I was going to be a counselor or social worker. To my neighbor’s great disappointment, I used a typewriter as a printer. Eventually, I got a dot-matrix printer and my neighbor forgave me. I wrote essays and term papers and loved it. Honestly, I don't know why anyone would actually pay someone else to write a term paper. But my papers were all printed very nice, typed neatly and they got good grades because I loved to write.
Then early last decade, I had decided to take a UNIX class at the community college. I had been blogging for a few years already by then. I had even started writing for a local paper, too. In order to take the UNIX class, I had to take a placement test. I decided to take the test cold, with no preparation at all. I just wanted to see where I stand with writing. When I finished the test, I asked about my results. I don’t remember the math test result, but with English, I placed English 2010. I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked. “If you take English 2010, you will never have to take another English class again to get a degree.” Oh. So that’s the power of practice?
I like to play ping pong. I’ve been playing on and off since I was a kid. I used to play daily with my dad. He’s right-handed and I’m left-handed. He totally worked my backend side and now I have a great backhand stroke in ping pong. I started out self-conscious and gradually learned how to play a pretty decent game with my dad.
Later on in my twenties, I became friends with a professional volleyball player who also happened to play very good ping pong. He did amazing returns of my best shots. He was also right-handed. But even then, I didn’t get very much practice, so I wasn’t playing the game I wanted to play. I didn’t know what I could do because I wasn’t practicing.
Now, in my 50s, I have a table and a space reserved for it. I have nice tacky paddles to put some spin on the ball. I’ve got a hundred balls, and most of them, I don’t know where they went. My wife and I are playing every day now. We don’t keep score, we just try to keep the rally going. But I’m doing things with the paddle and ball that I could only dream of when I was much younger. It’s easier for me to play not just because I’m playing every day. There is something else.
I’ve been practicing peace. Living in peace with your brothers and sisters is a skill that must be learned and practiced. There is no other way around it. Peace doesn’t just fall into your lap. It is a constant effort of trial and error for months, maybe years. And then, over time, we find the grooves and crevasses where peace is waiting for us, and we go there. We find that frame of mind that says that peace is more valuable than winning an argument, being first, or getting our way.
I’ve had the following experience at work. I’m asked to join a remote desktop session to help a customer with their software. After running a few tests, I have isolated the problem and fixed it in five minutes. The customer informs me that in five minutes, I’ve fixed a problem that he has wrestled with for three whole months, a problem that neither he nor any other employee he’s encountered, has been able to fix. Until now. After I heard that, I was high for a week. That’s the reward of practice. And I couldn’t have that without practicing peace first.
When I write an article that is recognized, I get a little bit high. When someone tells me that one of my articles helped them solve a problem, I might be high for a few days. And when one or more of my articles makes money, I’m on cloud 9 for a week. That is what comes from practicing writing and peace.
And when I find that I can look in any corner of my home and say that I have enough of that, and that, and that, I’m at peace. When I can get along with my family, and go a day or two without drama, I’m at peace. When I practice peace, when I make a conscious decision to err on the side of peace, I do find peace, but I find something else. I find that when I practice peace, the number of days between episodes of drama tends to grow into weeks and months. And, oh yes, I find contentment. Those are just some of the rewards of practice.