Every society values practice. We are used to seeing our cricketers practice daily. We see athletes practice. We see footballers practice. We believe in the power of practice. We have the axioms such as “practice makes a man perfect”. We have rules around practice: 10,000 hours to mastery.
However, while we appreciate the practice, often our understanding of the practice is rather shallow and incomplete. We don’t see it as an idea that can be applied to every area of our life. When we have a big speech ahead, we rehearse. Musicians practice before an event. We practice certain skills where we want to get better. But we don’t believe we can bring the practice to get better at living our life.
The dictionary definition of practice is: “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” To that end, everything that we do is a practice. The way you spend your day is practice. The way you live your life is practice. Practice is pervasive in our life. However, our approach to practice is more selective and we often treat it as a verb whereas practice is a way of living.
In the word practice, there is intentionality. That is the difference between sleepwalking and practice. When you are practicing something you have a goal. You want to improve on it. You want to be better. Similarly, you bring the practice to something where you want to make progress and improve.
If that is the case then most of all we want to get good at is living, how we spend our time, our work, our business, our marriage, our relationships with our parents and so on. The problem, however, is that we don’t view these things as skills that we can improve through practice. This is a fallacy of definition. While we believe in the power of practice, we essentially don’t identify with the fact that practice can be applied to every aspect of our life. To put it differently, we don’t identify that practice can be a way of being.
Coming back to our earlier point, in every one of these areas, you can improve if you bring intentionality and if you take practice as a way of being instead of as a verb that you apply in certain areas of your life but not in others.
In his excellent book Mastery, George Leonard offers an excellent explanation of this subtlety of the word practice:
“That usage of the word—practice as a verb—is clear to all of us. You practice your trumpet, your dance routine, your multiplication tables, your combat mission. To practice in this sense implies something separate from the rest of your life. You practice in order to learn a skill, in order to improve yourself, in order to get ahead, achieve goals, make money. This way of thinking about practice is useful in our society; you obviously have to practice to get to Carnegie Hall.
For one who is on the master’s journey, however, the word is best conceived of as a noun, not as something you do, but as something you have, something you are. In this sense, the word is akin to the Chinese word tao and the Japanese word do, both of which mean, literally, road or path. Practice is the path upon which you travel, just that.
A practice (as a noun) can be anything you practice on a regular basis as an integral part of your life—not in order to gain something else, but for its own sake. It might be a sport or a martial art. It might be gardening or bridge or yoga or meditation or community service. A doctor practices medicine and an attorney practices law, and each of them also has a practice. But if that practice is only a collection of patients or clients, a way of making a living, it isn’t a master’s practice. For a master, the rewards gained along the way are fine, but they are not the main reason for the journey. Ultimately, the master and the master’s path are one. And if the traveler is fortunate—that is, if the path is complex and profound enough—the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.
There’s another secret: The people we know as masters don’t devote themselves to their particular skill just to get better at it. The truth is, they love to practice—and because of this they do get better. And then, to complete the circle, the better they get the more they enjoy performing the basic moves over and over again.”
The master of any game is generally a master of practice.”George Leonard
Next time when you are sending that email or making that sales call or conducting that meeting, see if you can bring intentionality to it and improve a little bit every time you do it. That is practice.
Originally published on 29 July 2020. Updated on 14 August 2023