Category Archives: mastery

PERFECTION VS. PRACTICE

Today I read a beautiful post by my artist friend, Kerin Rose, on resiliency.

It’s just what I needed to hear today. I’ve been feeling mopey and wobbly for quite awhile now. Jon says I’m even waking up grumpy from naps. What a waste of a good nap!

I’ve tried to figure out why, but end up in useless mind swirls. Waves of anxiety, bouts self-judgment, exasperation with others (and not knowing how to manage that).

Kerin’s words remind me of what determines how we move forward, and how we get stuck.

Resiliency. (The ability to bounce back.)

I’d add to the list….

Grit. (The belief that we can get through it.)

Vulnerability. (The realization that we are not perfect, and never will be.)

And practice. (Wha……??!!)

Let me explain that last one, because it’s way more subtle than you might think.

Whenever we take up a new skill–piano playing, martial arts, writing–we’re told to practice, practice, practice.

We’re even supposed to “practice” yoga. And meditation. Enlightenment, like everything else that requires skill, takes that proverbial 10,000 hours of practice.

But let’s face it. Most practice is b*o*r*i*n*g. Repetitious. Monotonous. Right?

And many nay-sayers say it depends on what you practice, and how. After all, if you practice an error, you get really, really good at that error.

So what’s the use of practicing?

It’s not what you think.

For example, most Westerners probably think that we should practice meditation because we can empty our brain, and achieve enlightenment. Since most of us may not want empty brains, we think time spent meditating is not time well-spent.

But it turns out meditating–or rather, even trying to meditatehas its own rewards. Even a few minutes a day helps our brain focus better. Being able to recognize a thought, acknowledge it, evaluating it, helps us manage our emotional states better. Our “enlightenment” is actually the realization that much of what we have the luxury of creating in our lives, comes from our emotions and thoughts and perceptions about how the world works. We have the ability to change that for the better. Practice makes it so.

In fact, the value of our practice may be greater than the actual goal we practice for.

I found this in martial arts. Yes, the practice of Tae Kwon Do resulted in me attaining a certain quality of form (for a few years, anyway!) But the real gift was realizing I could get very good at something, even if I didn’t really have a knack or a gift for it. I just loved it. And loving it kept me practicing.

Practicing got me skills, but it also taught me to have more confidence, and trust, in my process and in myself.

(This is why I tell people not to beat themselves up for not “doing it right”, whatever THAT is. Whatever works for you is the right way to do it.)

That’s why we feel better when we actually work our craft. Whether we make art, play an instrument, work in our gardens, sing, dance, whatever our creative thing is, practicing it makes us feel engaged, and more ourselves.

In fact, one of my practices is writing. Lately, I’m encouraging myself to write as soon as an idea hits. This post is a result of that practice. (And guess what? It’s working! I feel better!)

In short, practice is what gives us resiliency and grit.
Practice is what allows us to be vulnerable. Allows us to connect. Encourages us to be open to something new.

Practice may not make perfect.
But practice is what makes us better. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Now go make something today!

2 Comments

Filed under art, martial arts, mastery, mental attitude

KICKBOXING AND ART–What Do They Have in Common?

Who knew exercise could be so educational!?

(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)

What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent

IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.

And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.

My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.

You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.

You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!

5 Comments

Filed under art, craft, fear of failing, martial arts, mastery, mental attitude, perseverence

THE FIFTH STAGE OF COMPETENCE

Are you ready to start all over again?

I’m really hooked on the Four Stages of Competence and I’ve written about them a lot.

Years ago, I received this remarkable little set of learning stages as a handout in a martial arts class:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

It’s so easy! The joyous stage of the beginner, when you simply jump in and start a new endeavour. You feel full of promise and potential–”Hey! I have a real a knack for this!” You may have some natural talent, or you just may not realize how bad you really are. Beginner’s luck falls into this category, too.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

It gets hard. It begins to dawn on you how hard this stuff really is, and how much there is to learn. You become painfully aware of how inadequate your performance really is. ***Most people quit at this stage of learning. “I can’t do this!” or “I’m no good at this!”***

Stage 3 Conscious Competence

You keep working at it. You have acquired skill, but you have to think about it, and practice it, until you get to that most amazing place…

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence

You master your craft. Your techniques have become automatic. Your body simply knows what to do, and works in sync with your mind to achieve even greater heights. You know now that learning this skill is a life-long pursuit, and your studies have really just begun.

This handout changed my life. I still pursue my art and the martial arts, knowing that only perseverance, practice and passion will get me to that glorious final stage–and beyond.

It was a big “aha!” moment when I learned most people quit at the second stage–me included. Knowing that, I now try to stick with something I really want to learn.

And when we watch someone who’s mastered their craft, we say they “make it look easy”–whether it’s a practiced potter raising the clay; an artist talking passionately about their work; or a black belt throwing a spinning back kick to the head. They make it look effortless.

Because, at that stage of their mastery, it is. They don’t have to think about it–they just do it.

What we don’t see is the 10,000 hours of practice (a theory proposed by psychologist Eric Andersson, who studied “expertise”) and the dedication they gave to perfect that skill.

So where did I come up with the Fifth Stage of Competence?

Recently I’ve had a chance to watch some extremely talented people, people who are experts at what they do, try to learn something new.

They brought skills that would translate well to their new venture: Analytical minds, perseverance, physical skill and fitness. In many ways, they were able to master the new venture more quickly, with less time and effort than it had taken me.

But they still struggled. Because there were still key elements that were foreign to them, things they had to learn simply by putting in the time. Things they had to master by simply doing them, over and over and over again.

What struck me was how quickly they got stuck–and quit.

Now, I know we can’t all spend 10,000 on any old thing that crosses our path.

And I know we have to have some attraction to the thing, something that helps us get through those oh-so-difficult stages of incompetency (especially that nasty second stage.)

Even so, the Fifth Stage is…..

Being able–being willing–to be a beginner again.

Being very good at starting over.

P.S. Now imagine my embarrassment when my daughter tried to teach me swing dancing last month, and two minutes into it I protested, “I’m just no good at this!”

1 Comment

Filed under art, craft, fear of failing, inspiration, mastery

THE DEVIL AT WORK IN THE WORLD

The Devil’s two most powerful tools in this world are vanity and envy.

I’ve written so much about jealousy and envy, I thought I had nothing left to say. But I do.

I know that technically speaking, the terms are not identical. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is fear of losing what you have.

But the premise is the same: Your perception is, you fear you have something to lose, and somebody else is responsible for that fear.

Envy has been a powerful thread in my life. No matter how “enlightened” I get, I struggle with it. Either I’m preoccupied with someone else having more skill/good fortune/attention, or someone is giving me crap because they envy me.

Seems like much of the trouble in the world is based on envy, from my own small woes to those of great nations.

If someone copies your work, part of that is because they see you have skill/success/attention/money/whatever. They think if they simply make the same work, they will have that, too.

If someone is envious of your artwork, and they are in a position of power over you (a juror for a show, a standards committee member), they can make life miserable for you in countless small and subtle ways.

If they are a peer or a friend, it’s even worse. Suddenly, everything you say or do draws a sarcastic remark, a biting comment, a moment of ridicule. A once-promising friendship warps into something sad and rueful.

When I allow myself to envy, it’s just as bad. Trust me.

But the real sin in envy is not in the behavior itself, or the misery it causes.

It’s because by giving in to it, we give away our power.

We give away everything beautiful, unique and wonderful that’s in us. We destroy the gifts that are given us–our talent, our perseverance, our joy–and turn them into dust.

Earlier this month, I almost left my dojo for another that seemed more compatible. I thought I would join a school that was less physically demanding, more sympathetic to my aging body.

I talked with my head instructor; he reluctantly agreed my reasons were sound. But he said I had to let the head of my school know.

I have one thing I do well that I’m proud of. I make the hard phone calls. I arranged to meet with Mr. R in person.

What happened then was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

I will make a long story short–this was a complex situation, with a long history, involving many talented, good people. Much of it is personal and not tangent to the story, so I won’t go into it.

But the heart of this story is, Mr. R quoted that opening line to me. He told me when he’d heard it, and why.

Envy was at the root of the long, sad story that had left so many people deeply unhappy, and not at peace with themselves.

That’s when I realized that another, deeper reason for me leaving was not simply the tough work-out. The real reason was, I was envious of others in the class. I felt stupid having to step out when things got hard. Others were moving ahead, and I was not.

That was bad. Because I had lost track of my true reasons for practicing Tae Kwon Do.

I’d forgotten that my practice is always, for myself.

Not to be better than so-and-so, or to get to my next belt, or have my teacher praise me.

I must practice because I love what Tae Kwon Do can teach me.

I must practice because I love the discipline of trying to be my best.

I must practice for the joy of mastering something–sometimes in a horribly pathetic long drawn-out process, to be sure–to get good at something simply because I keep doing it, no matter what.

I, and I alone, am responsible for pacing myself within the class. If I can’t do sets of fifty push-ups anymore, then I must break it down into sets of 25, or 20. Or seven, if that’s all I can squeeze out.

If I can’t run fast laps on the hard floor, then I can run slow laps on the mat. Or walk, if that’s all my body can handle that day.

And there is no need to feel embarrassed when I need to step up or slow down. Because 1) it’s not anyone else’s place to judge me, and 2) I must stop judging myself.

Can you see the implications for our art?

I have quoted Martha Graham’s quote many times, but I’ll do it again. And I see I’ve lost the copy I used to hang prominently on my bulletin board, so I’ll print it out again for me, too:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. …

No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

from The Life and Work of Martha Graham[

Everyone always has there own reasons for their behavior. If they are envious of you, it has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you can do to deflect it, or control it, either. Sometimes we have the luxury of removing ourselves from the situation, sometimes we can’t.

Understand that envy is based on fear. Fear that there is not enough love, or not enough attention, or not enough money, or not enough opportunity for all of us. Fear creates a little death. It takes the joy of living away from us.

We can only manage ourselves. The only thing we can change is how we respond. The only thing to do is to keep doing what we’re supposed to do, on the very highest level.

We can only try to make our decisions out of love, and hope, instead of fear.

We can only keep making the unique work, the art, that is in our hearts.

I have had the support of amazing people in my life, who have helped me internalize that. I may need a refresher course from time to time, but I always get back to the same place, the place of inner strength and conviction.

This is my gift to the world, the work of my hands, the work of my words, the work of my heart.

It is all we really have, but it is astonishingly powerful.

And when we truly understand and embrace that, we are astonishing, too.

25 Comments

Filed under art, copycats, craft, creativity, envy, inspiration, jealousy, life, mastery, Nibble theory, professional jealousy