Practice, Ownership, and the Desert of Improvement

( Whiplash  | Sony Pictures Classics)

(Whiplash | Sony Pictures Classics)

The magic is not only in the repetitions but also the pauses in between.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Within our bodies are muscles; within muscles are muscle spindles; within these spindles are cells. Our cells are constantly moving; they heal us, drive function, and their excitement keeps us alive. With enhanced microscopes, we can see our cells—glowworms in the dark, dancing.

Practice at Sunrise

When muscles first contract, the cells move in a frenzy—uncoordinated and wild. Yet the more the muscles contract, the better the cells move. Rather than frantic and wild, the cells move smoother, carry better signals, and create stable patterns. They begin to remember.

Cells have a memory; muscles have a memory; your body has a memory; your mind has a memory. It's about sensing and understanding our senses. This is sometimes called the "mind-body" connection, which gives it an otherworldly quality; but in practical terms, we know it as our nervous system. This is how the body and mind communicate, through the synapses within our nervous system.

It is something of folk wisdom to stress practice, but it is also important to note why. The more you practice, the more your building blocks remember, and if practiced is owned within your very essence, the better you will perform. Scientists have been trying to understand the best ways to make cells move. Their conclusion? Repetition.

If I teach you to punch, will you instantly become a knockout artist? No. But perhaps after years of practice, you'll be knocking people out professionally. If I show you how to bench-press, you won't go from a 130-pound press to a 250-pound press overnight. That might take years. If given information or provided a method, we want results instantly. But it is such an unlikely possibility for outcomes to be achieved without repetition or application of the method and information, we call it magic. A magic pill. A hoax. Fraud. But there is truth in practice.

When given new information, we think we "get it." No, we don't. There are steps. You're outlined a diet by a doctor, you tell her you get it, and you think everything has changed, but after a few months, your doctor finds that the only thing that has changed is that your diet has gotten worse. You think since you understand what your doctor said, you "get it." But regarding application, "getting it" is not about understanding, it is about ownership. There are those who eat healthfully without understanding it. There are those who can throw a perfect punch who can't teach how to throw a punch. They own it. For personal improvement, we overestimate understanding when ownership is what matters.

Understanding does not require practice, which is why we conveniently conflate it with ownership. "You told me, so now I know." But that is the incorrect mindset. "You told me, so now I must practice." Because you don't know until you've gone through it. It is like being told the beauty of love, but you don't know until you've experienced it.

Whether practice is physical or mental, signals are sent through synapses. The more you practice, the stronger the synapses; the stronger the synapses, the faster the signal. A faster signal retains higher quality—less time for decay, less chance to be lost in the translation.

Signals can travel from one part of the brain to another, for clearer thoughts and creativity. Signals can also travel from the brain to the body, enabling quickness in action and reaction. A strong signal provides familiarity; you can touch the keys to a piano or a computer, and stroke without looking. You can wrestle an opponent with your eyes closed. It gives you ninja-like skills for mundane tasks. You can place your small house key into the small key slot of your front door, in the dark. The magic is in the habitual devotion to practice.

Practice Is a Place, Rather Than an Act

What often separates elite from the amateur is this combination of intellectual, muscular, and nervous memory that brings us close to perfection in human performance. Practice takes the slack out, things require less effort—be it a golf swing or a judo throw—more economy of action.

What practice does is it creates an efficient environment for improvement. If you break a bone, the cast provides an environment to heal. Everyone can improve, but those who practice more diligently and consistently spend more time in the environment of improvement. In baseball, those who spend more time at bat, get better at hitting. The environment of practice is your sunlight. The memory of practice is the memory of converting light to energy.

Practice is not only something you do, it is also a state; the longer you are in this state, the more natural this state becomes. You are not only doing practice, you are in practice. After a while, you are no longer practicing the thing, you become the thing.

Rest at Sunset

( Whiplash  | Sony Pictures Classics)

(Whiplash | Sony Pictures Classics)

But you must ask yourself, "How much of this thing do I want to become?" Should it overtake your identity? Could it become obsessive? Can you burn out? Can things ultimately get worse? Just as with a cast for a broken bone, if one stays in the cast permanently, the bone will eventually grow weaker. We know this feeling, this feeling of anxiety, of our nerves being shot—feeling fried. We call this state "nervous" for a reason. When we have thrown a ball too often, there is pain in our rotator. The more we use something, the more broken in it becomes, the better it becomes. Yet the duality is, it also begins to break. The anxiety that you must always be doing something can become a natural state; that you must always get better, fearing missing out, that you will never live up to expectations, that your only purpose is to achieve. But as a living person, nothing is worth your equanimity. No amount of prestige and status will be worth it. Somewhere between now and the end, life will force you to recognize that. As a person, you should be invaluable. Once you see yourself as an amalgam of achievements, you begin to set a value. You become a good. You become the thing.

Practice is a place, rather than an act, but we can't live there. We must go home every night and become a person. If practice is sunlight, when there is only practice, what is left is a desert. Do not discount rest and leisure. The best rest. They sleep more, relax more, and recover more than the rest. The anxious and obsessed burn out, freak out, get injured, and never last long enough for a lifetime of practice. To a swordsman, the setting down of the sword is as relevant as the picking up of the sword. A sword that is always in play breaks. Unsheathe, cut, resheathe. And when at full rest, the sword is sharpened, cleaned, repaired, and honored. When one finds balance, one finds a fertile garden.

Within practice is repetition; within repetition is pause. The magic is not only in the repetitions but also the pauses in between. Catch your breath before you lose your breath. Achievement is a process of trying and not trying. Breathe in. Efficiency is not in tension but in relaxation. Breathe out.

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