I have had a few responses to my last post Stop Trying So Hard that centered around two questions:
- What about practice?
- What’s wrong with pushing for excellence?
I love these questions because they point to both the paradox of the message behind trying too hard and trying to improve our skills. I made the title purposefully provocative, but I didn’t mean to confuse people. This article is an attempt to address both of those questions, but feel free to write me with more if you want.
(Sorry, I feel like I can’t talk about practice without Allen Iverson)
In order to really talk about practice and trying hard, I had to go to an expert in this field. David Shenk wrote a book back in 2010 called The Genius in All of US:
In this book he cites a ton of research on genetics, intelligence and excellence. He goes much more in depth into Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of research than we got from Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and he outlines some specific important elements of practice. I won’t go into all of them (please read the book if you are interested in this kind of stuff), but there are two in particular that strike me as important (beginning with 4):
“4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.”
He goes on later to describe this as “deliberate practice.”
“Deliberate practice requires a mind-set of never, ever, being satisfied with your current ability. It requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again.”
When I said “Don’t try so hard,” I was not referring to deliberate practice. I was referring to the habit of trying to “get it right” or to “prove” that you belong. This type of practice is about leaning into the process of failing and learning. It is a different type of driven, and people who practice like this are not watching themselves or worrying about what others may think about them.
When I was in high school one of my best friends was a ballet dancer. Every day after school he would head over to the studio to dance. He pretty much never had a job, or any money and couldn’t really hang out except on certain times during the weekend. We loved him, but I could never really understand that kind of devotion. Years later his hard work culminates into this:
(We are basically the same age, except in terms of physical abilities)
Christian danced his way into the School of American Ballet (think Harvard for ballet) and has had an amazing career as a dancer and choreographer. Every bit of it has come from the work and sweat that he has put into it. What I may have thought was weird at sixteen, was actually deliberate practice and drive.
2. What’s wrong with pushing for excellence?
Nothing. Nothing except that you will probably make others uncomfortable.
Anyone who tells you to stop dreaming or stop pushing yourself is only talking about themselves.
In David Halberstam’s book Playing for Keeps about Michael Jordan’s rise to becoming the greatest basketball player ever (also cited in Shenk’s book), there are stories about how weird and driven Michael Jordan’s practice habits were. Jordan would constantly compete against his teammates, always trying to push himself to improve his weaknesses. If by some chance a teammate would beat him in a game, he wouldn’t let him leave until they played again and he won.
That was probably really annoying to be around, yet it also led to six championships…
There are two things that I think are important about pushing for excellence that I learned from Halberstam’s book.
- We are capable of things that we almost cannot imagine. All it takes is putting our minds to it.
- Striving and attaining excellence won’t fix you.
I guess that second part is what I want to stress the most. If you really want to be excellent at something, then go ahead and work towards that goal. Work hard and sacrifice your free time. Lean into your weaknesses and push yourself to learn what your limitations are.
Just don’t chase it because you think it will make you a better person or a whole person.
I had a client say to me once that he couldn’t understand why athletes cheated. What’s the satisfaction in knowing that you didn’t win legitimately?
I suppose that this is what happens when people think that winning is something that changes them. They want so badly to achieve a goal that they are willing to give up on their integrity.
I am learning to seek and to trust the process. My desire is to be more authentic, to love myself more and to trust myself implicitly. To do this does take practice because there are always situations that take me out of myself. I also want to grow into the person I am meant to be. The same can be said for what I want for my clients.
So practice, push for excellence, but know that you are also enough. If you never did another thing beyond this day, you would be enough.
We all would.