When you first hear the word “practice,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps you think of an athlete executing drills in between games, or a musician playing scales on a piano to prepare for a recital. This is how I thought about practice for a long time.
But researching, writing, and reporting on my past few books has gotten me to think about practice in a much broader way:
Practice means approaching an endeavor deliberately, with care, and with the intention to continuously grow. It requires paying close attention to the feedback you receive—both internal and from people whom you trust—and adjusting accordingly.
The art of practice is applicable to anything at which you strive to advance, whether that means shaving two minutes off your marathon time, improving your public speaking, or becoming a stronger, kinder, and wiser person.
You can have a writing practice, a legal practice, a medical practice, a running practice, a parenting practice, a leadership practice, a coaching practice, a teaching practice, an artistic practice, and a meditation practice.
When an activity becomes a practice, it shifts from something that you are doing at a point in time to an ongoing process of becoming.
James Carse, a professor of history and religion at New York University, would call this kind of practice an “infinite game.” In his book, Finite and Infinite Games, Carse writes that a finite game is one that will be won or lost, and that will come to a definite end. An infinite game, however, as its name suggests, is ongoing. The whole purpose is to keep playing.
When you consider a pursuit as a practice, you still have acute ups and downs. But they are merely part of a larger process—and it is the larger process that matters. Not the outcome of that process, but how you go about the process itself. Outcomes are short-lived and ephemeral. More than 99 percent of life is the process.
Viewing something as an isolated activity lends itself to reactionary “good” or “bad” judgments, forgetfulness, and discontinuity. Viewing something as a practice lends itself to continuous learning, meaningful change, and integration. Practice is an infinite game.
Eastern wisdom traditions conceptualize practice as a path—tao in Chinese and do in Japanese. This represents the never-ending, infinite nature of practice. There is no destination, just continuous learning and refining. Conceiving of practice as a path also represents the inevitability that sometimes you will veer off. That’s fine. Your work is to get back on.
“The way practice works,” wrote an anonymous Zen master, “is that you build it up, and then it falls apart. And then you build it up again, and then it falls apart again. This is the way it goes.”
Any significant long-term endeavor or change benefits from being conceived of as a practice. Here are some guiding principles:
- Do not worry too much about achieving a specific result. Focus on digging where your feet are. If you concentrate on the process, the results you are hoping for tend to take care of themselves.
- Bring intentionality to everything you do. Use your core values to help you make decisions, especially when the path forward is uncertain.
- Work with like-minded others whenever possible, and don’t be scared to ask for help when you need it.
- Take a long view and assume you will fail every now and again. If you expect occasional failures they won’t surprise you or throw you off course. They simply become part of the process, information you can learn from and that will help you grow.
- Do not compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to prior versions of yourself and judge yourself based on the effort you are exerting in the present moment.