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The Power of Practice


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It was one of those Blink Moments that Malcolm Gladwell writes about, a moment of instantaneous knowing without explanation. It happened as I was leaving the supermarket and passed a woman who looked utterly miserable. The moment that look registered with me, I thought with great certainty, “She's not just discontented today. She's perpetually miserable. "

By the time I got to my car, I was mentally composing an article called, “What the Perpetually Miserable Can Teach Us. " I thought of people I've known who fit this description and realized that they are paragons of commitment. They cultivate, nurture and expand their unhappy state of being. They continually find evidence to support their misery. They're unshakable. If only dreambuilders were equally committed!

I will assume that perpetually miserable is not something you aspire to be. So what would you like to be perpetually? Calm? Wise? Creative? Helpful? Confident? No matter what your personal choice includes, the path to achieving it is paved with more than desire. You must be willing to practice-and practice and practice some more.

Tiger Woods told the audience of 60 Minutes that he'd been working with a coach to change his game and hadn't mastered it yet, but said, “I am willing to lose in order to get better. " And then there's my all-time favorite observation from Mick Jagger who said, “You've got to sing every day so you can build up to being like, you know, absolutely brilliant. "

That willingness to sing every day in order to get better is as important to entrepreneurial success as it is to selling out concerts or winning golf trophies. Yet many adults recoil at the thought of practice, thinking that it leads to boredom. That's not true if what we're practicing comes from our passion. Consider this: we take up a spiritual practice; doctors are said to practice medicine while attorneys practice law. The implication is that worthwhile endeavors are calls to lifelong learning.

Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor, has been studying outstanding performance for years. He says, “A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it. "

What may also not be obvious is that we all are practicing daily and whatever we practice most, is what we master. Like the perpetually miserable woman, we can excel at stinginess or generosity, originality or mediocrity, boredom or adventure. It's just a matter of where we're putting in our time and effort.

My brother Jim who lives in California and is an avid surfer. He's also 61 years old. My sisters and I like to point out to him that although we've seen his wet suit and surfboard, none of us have ever seen him in the water. He points out that surfing isn't a spectator sport. Even so, we know that when the weather and the waves are cooperative, Jim will be at the beach. That doesn't mean that getting himself there is always easy.

He told me, “I was driving to the beach yesterday morning and it was still dark. I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?'"

"You're doing it so you can have a lively old age, " I suggested.

He laughed and said, “You know I surf better now than I did thirty years ago. " I pointed out that he'd also been disciplined about keeping at it. “I still love it, " he said, then added, “The more waves you ride, the more goes in the bank. It all adds up. "

While we've all heard that practice makes perfect, that's not quite true. Practice makes permanent, but we can only get better at if we're paying attention while we do it-and trying different approaches to figure out what produces the desired results.

Then we begin to notice where our practice is leading us. We discover only weeks after practicing yoga that we can turn our heads farther when backing up the car. Or we find that our fifth media interview is smoother than our first. Sometimes we learn that we're farther along than we thought and sometimes we discover the need to practice more diligently. Either way, it all goes in the bank.

Barbara J. Winter is a Las Vegas-based self-employment advocate and writer. She is the author of Making a Living Without a Job. She conducts seminars throughout the US and Canada on creative self-employment. Her newest events are a one-day seminar called What Would an Entrepreneur Do? and a three-day event, Compelling Storytelling. She also publishes Winning Ways newsletter, now in its twenty-second year of helping people turn passions into profits.


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