Two sayings, each with truth:
- “Practice makes perfect.”
- “Practice makes permanent.”
The first is familiar to most. We’ve heard it often. Anyone subjected to insert musical instrument lessons knows the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. The second, interestingly enough, I learned from a musical instrument instructor, a mandolin teacher I had once. His point – practice the wrong things, the wrong way, and you’ll end up permanently doing things wrong.
The common denominator of both sayings though, obviously, is that in order to get really good at anything (correctly or not) is to practice. A lot. Lots of people are richly talented. They come out of the womb with innate abilities to do things – draw, write, make music, understand quantum physics. We often see them perform or see the results of their talent and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” There’s surely some truth to that saying, too. Sometimes. Talent is a gift to be thankful for and some are blessed with more of it than others. Still, I think sometimes we sell both ourselves and those talented people short in that we forget to recognize the really important role that practice plays in bringing out the full richness of one’s talent(s).
This morning, before getting out of bed, I finished Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I’ll not comment on the book here except to say it is, all at once, incredible and unbelievable, hopeful and infuriating. It’s definitely worth reading. But what I thought about as I closed the cover, got dressed, and took Zeb for his morning walk, was how Jeannette Walls became such a good writer. She had a story to tell, for sure, but she tells it well because she’s a good writer and she became a good writer by first reading and then writing. A lot.
As a child, she (as well as her parents and siblings) devoured books. She read and read and read. She describes fond memories of her family sitting together in the living room of some shack they occupied at the time, all reading together. They didn’t watch TV together – in part because they had no television, let alone any electricity to run one – but instead sat together, each in their own world of whatever story they were reading at the time. And she loved this.
As she entered high school, she started working on the school paper. She started editing and typesetting. She started writing. She wrote about everything. Hardly any other students wanted to work on the paper and so she wrote the stories of football games, class events and school board decisions. She left West Virginia as a teenager to join her older sister in New York City and soon found a job writing for a weekly paper there. She wrote and wrote and wrote, as she had read and read and read, and in doing so the talent that she discovered at 13 or so, developed and ultimately became her livelihood and her career. She is a writer.
The same story line can be traced for practically anyone who has become really good at what they do. How many millions of hours has your favorite musician practiced? What artist is ever found without a sketchbook in his or her bag? The Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I work always has a nice black Moleskin notebook with him whenever I see him (I have a thing for journals and take note when I see one), as do others I know who think a lot, ask questions a lot, and try to solve problems a lot.
Scientists do a thousand experiments that go wrong before they experience the “Aha!” moment. Julia Child likely went through skeins of twine before she could tie that chicken up just right. Really good baseball players “only” hit .300 and no one’s come close to a .400 season in a long, long time now. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls and a lot of pop ups in between the singles and the homeruns.
I may never write as well as Annie Dillard, play the mandolin like Chris Thile, run a marathon as fast as Joan Benoit Samuelson, or even be a library director like Jean Shipman – all people I admire for how they do what they do. But to say one will never be something without putting in the practice is much different than saying so while at the same time, showing up every day and working hard at what you enjoy and want to do.
So now I’ll head to work in the library where I’ve an article to finish, knowing that I’ve primed my writing brain by taking some time this morning for reading and writing. I’ll draw some pictures during lunch. I’ll slog through another slow, slow pace as I put in the miles training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. And then I’ll watch the recap of today’s Tour de France stage while I practice over and over that little riff Howie showed me on my mandolin. And it’ll be a good day.
Here’s hoping you have the same.