PRACTICE AND NOT PERFECT

I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.

I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.

Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:

keep going keep going keep going

Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.

And the miracle happened. As it always does.

Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.

Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)

I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”

“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)

I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.

It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?

I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!

And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.

But simply trying was…..fun.

Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.

With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.

Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.

Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.

It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.

I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.

None of that matters. Just the practice.

It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”

I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.

So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.

But it felt…wonderful.

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!”