Everything is a Practice

There is no finish line. There is no winning, no losing.

I don’t think anything I’ve ever written has been as misunderstood as this piece. That’s entirely my failure. Let me be clearer: By practice I do not mean rehearsal. I mean practice as in a thing you do regularly, e.g. the practice of rising early; the practice of daily exercise, etc.

There is no finish line. There is no winning, no losing.

Everything is a Practice.

A practice is the disciplined repetition of what you know with enough experimentation in that repetition to unlock those things you don’t yet know. It is ever-accumulating, and never-ending. It is sometimes painful, but that is the way.

Individual projects may come to an end, but the practices that made them possible do not. You may finish writing a book, or reach the end of a run, or understand how to fix an engine, but there is no point where you’ve written enough, you’ve worked out enough, you’ve learned enough. The practices never end, which means you get to keep improving.

The practice leaves a path behind you to show you how far you have come and carves out a path ahead of you to show you where you can go.

The practices of your life are your life. They form the path you follow, they are how you become what you want to become, they make you who you are and who the world wants you to be. You are not solely in charge of your practices or the path they form. The world gets a vote too. In the end that’s part of the practice too — adjusting to feedback from the world, your body, your life, your family, your friends. All of these things are part of the practice, all of them inform it.

The practice also informs the experimentation that expands it.

The trick is to follow your curiosity. That often forgotten part of you that society tries to get you to repress. That voice that says, what would happen if… This is the way. Follow it. Follow it knowing you will likely fail, knowing that you’re probably doing it the wrong way, but you’re going to try it anyway… you’d be surprised what works. I’ve fixed loose battery wires with a bit of nail, held hoses on with zip ties, and countless other things that should not have worked, but did, at least for a little while. There’s plenty of failures along the way of course. Those people always telling you it can’t be done — whatever it might be — are sometimes right, but wouldn’t it be better to find out for yourself?

Now there are reasonable limits to this… I wouldn’t go trying to repair a $4,000 lens on your first attempt at lens repair. I wouldn’t pick a rare, difficult to replace engine for your first rebuild. Learn to manage risk. When you know you’re headed off the map to experiment, pick things to experiment on and situations to experiment in where you can keep the risk level low. Whether that means using something cheap, or doing it at low speed, or making sure the water is deep enough before you jump. Whatever the case, learn to manage risk so that your lessons learned aren’t so painful — financially, emotionally, physically —- that you forget what you learned and remember only the trauma of the learning.

In this process though you will become a better human being. You will get better at living. You will have less pain down the road. Your path will be smoother. You are building real world skills that you can use over and over. Every skill that you pick up transfers to other things too. Your practice will expand and keep growing.

The experience you gain using a multimeter to untangle the rats nest of wires under the dash will come in handy when you need to figure out why the fridge suddenly stopped. That method of troubleshooting, following wires, testing voltages, making sure resisters are working, and so on, that method of inquiry you learned working under that dash transfers to other things. It’s the same method of inquiry needed to figure out what’s happening with anything electrical. There will be some differences between the fridge and the dash and the dishwasher and the vacuum, but the basic method is the same. From one small repair you gain an insight that makes countless future repairs that much easier. But only if you do it yourself.

In this way everything you do is always building your skill set. You’re always expanding your practice. This makes the path that much easier. You are that much more proficient at being human. The journey becomes easier, you are less reliant on others and you free up resources to focus on life’s more interesting things. That way when the fridge dies at anchor in the San Blas, two days sail from the nearest repair shop, you don’t worry. You fix the issues and get on with the dive you were planning to do that day.

Skills transfer in unexpected ways too. It isn’t all just troubleshooting methods that transfer. The experience you gain struggling at terrible sketches of birds will come in handy when you start staring at the engine, trying to make sense of what’s gone wrong — you’ve trained your mind to pay attention to the little details of feathers, which is not so different than paying attention to the little details of how a machine is running or how the wind and weather are changing. It is all connected.

I should probably stop here and point out that I am a miserable hack with very few skills. I am not a repair expert or wunderkind of any sort. I can barely fix my way out of a paper bag. I am writing this not because I have mastered it on some long journey of experience, but because I have lived a couple of these examples and when thinking about it later, realized, oh, I made that connection because of this other things that I didn’t see as related at the time, but then it turned out it was.

I am writing this because I have seen other people who can do this at a level I know I’ll never get close to. I am writing this because you may be younger than me, you may have more time to learn. By the time you get to my age, you might be where I wish I was. Where I would be if I’d been paying more attention earlier on in life.

I write not as an expert, but as a cautionary tale. Learn more than I did. Experiment more than I did. Expose yourself to more adversity than I did so that you learn to overcome it, not in theory, not by reading on the comfort of your couch, but in practice, at the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, when it really counts.

And now a little practice I wish I’d run across when I was much younger.

How do you find your practice? I don’t know what you need to do or where you ought to go, but I can offer some places to start, some questions to think about.

The Webster’s 1913 dictionary definition of practice includes as examples, “the practice of rising early; the practice of making regular entries of accounts; the practice of daily exercise.” That’s not a bad place to start: get up, get moving, and keep track of where your money is going. That can take you far. None of that is revolutionary. Ben Franklin is famous for saying roughly the same thing. You can find similar quotes going back to the very edges of written history, but it’s still a solid place to start. Get up and get going.

What I think gets lost in our time — the time of The Experts — is that there’s not a single path, not a set of practices that work for everyone. We’ve been conditioned to look for prescriptions that fit everyone and that’s just not how life works. You and I are different. You have to experiment and find what works for you. It might be nearly the same as what works for me, but it also might be totally different. I know people who are very much on their path who are vegans and do their best work late at night. You have to find your own way.

That said, I do have a suggestion on where to start: start with touching your nose.

I know, that sounds stupid. If you’re into making some kind of huge change in your life the last thing you want to hear is that you should start by touching your nose. What the hell is that going to do? The answer is: it’s going to train your will.

If you were out of shape, unable to do a single push up, but desiring to be able to knock out 100 push ups in two minutes you wouldn’t start with 50, you’d start with one. But even then, there is a high risk of failure because the effort it takes to get from zero push ups to ten is more than it takes to get from ten to 100. There’s a very good chance that you’re going to give up before you get to ten — not because it’s too hard, but because you aren’t accustomed to forcing yourself to do things. You are not in control of your will.

It’s not your fault. Unless you happen to have enlisted in the armed forces, practice a martial art, or have monastic religious training, you have very likely never even been taught that you can train your will, let alone how to do it. That’s okay.

The good news is that, unlike the hypothetical arms in the push up example, the will is not weak. Your will is as strong as it was when you were a baby starting to crawl and you willed your entire body to do something it had never done before. If your will feels weak it is because it’s divided against itself. The power of the will comes from disciplined focus. When you can focus your will on a single thing, and only that thing, you can do remarkable things.

Getting to that point is the hard part. That is the practice of the will. This is where all practices start. This is the metapractice that enables all the other practices to come into being. The will, directed, is the thing that enables you to turn words into ideas, ideas into action, action into skills. The will is what opens up the path in front of you and enables you to move forward.

When you say “will” though most people think of some miserable thing where you grit your teeth and bear some suffering. That’s not the will, that’s you fighting your will. When your will is focused following it is effortless, in fact you can’t not follow it, you are directing it after all.

The problem is that most of your life you’ve been told to do things you didn’t want to do. School is the primary culprit here for most of us, though there maybe other things in your life. Schooling in the United States is almost universally designed to damage the will and leave you unable to do much of anything save serve the will of others. This is why most of us leave school and get a job. We literally go out to serve another’s will. Our will has been so damaged we think that the thing we fight against when we “grit our teeth” or “just do it” is our will.

That’s not your will, that’s your will divided. Our wills know a bad deal when they see one, even if we don’t. And so they fight it — they fight school, they fight our pointless jobs, they fight our uninspired cities and all the rest. And we fight our will. And we become convinced that this struggle against ourselves is what it means to direct our will. We become convinced that we’re weak.

That makes for a ton of emotional baggage wrapped up in our divided will. That why every New Year’s when we vow to hit the gym and do those push ups, we fail. We spiral downward, further convinced we are weak.

This is compounded by the fact that your will is the source of most of your emotions — when your will succeeds in the world, you are happy, when it fails you are miserable. If you have a lot of miserable emotions locked up in your will and you try to focus it… it doesn’t work. By the end of February it’s been two months since you went to the gym.

That’s why you start with touching your nose. This is a variation on what every religious training manual (and some of the better secular ones) I’ve read advises doing. Something silly. Something that doesn’t matter. Something that you have no emotional attachment to. Something you will not fail to do because of years of damage to your will. Touching your nose is easy and has no emotional baggage for most people.

So do it. Right now. Wherever you are sitting, reading this. Use your left hand and touch your nose ten times, returning your hand to your side or lap each time. Do it now before you read any further.

Congratulations, you unified your will and succeeded. This is the beginning. This is how you train yourself to use your will deliberately.

Now you need to do that every day. Write “touch your nose!” on a piece of note paper and put it somewhere you will see it every day, ideally multiple times a day, ideally somewhere other people won’t bother you about it. Then every time you see it, touch your nose ten times with your left hand.

Congratulations. You have a new practice in your life. No, not touching your nose. The habit of doing something because you chose to do it. Not because some authority told you to or some unnoticed compulsion drove you to — you chose to do this. You do it. You direct your will.

That is the beginning of the practice.


jim April 06, 2023 at 3:16 p.m.

you may enjoy this book https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finite_and_Infinite_Games

Scott April 06, 2023 at 4:01 p.m.


Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll see if I can grab copy next time I’m at the library.


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