Thursday, July 8, 2010

Practice makes perfect?

Lately, I have become a bit obsessed with the idea of ‘practice’.  Practice is a repetition or rehearsal of something, an action, activity, work, and so on, in order to become skilled at it. It is both a noun (‘standards and practises’- spelled with an ‘s’ if it’s a noun) and a verb (‘I am practicing violin’- spelled with a ‘c’ if it’s a verb. My mom will laugh at sentence, I hated practicing violin and probably never used this phrase in my life, except when lying to my violin teacher about my upcoming week’s activities). The definition hinges on ‘ACTIVITY’. The DOING of SOMETHING over and OVER in order to become better at it. Sometimes, when you’re really good at your specific activity, you move from the verb to the noun (medical practise or law practise).

I really like this idea that you aren’t ever really done- even if you’re an expert, you still have to practice. In fact, it’s what you do every day.  You go to your job to keep getting better at your job. It’s one of the things that I love about yoga- you’re never perfect at it, you’ve just got to keep working on it.  Even the people that do it every day still strive to attend to their practice and make it stronger.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues (and has the science to back it up) that there’s a magic number of hours that people need to do something to transition from good to great. When people cross the threashold of 10,000 hours, they somehow move from good at something to very very very good. He uses examples from sports, music, medicine, even art. After working on a certain activity for 10K hours, people reach a state of expertise.

Ok, after reading this part of the book, I think to myself-  “SWEET!!! That’s all I have to do!! Get to 10,000 and I’m home free! I will be Good. At. Something. Important. I wonder how many hours I’ve done so far, probably like 5,000. I feel that I am at about 5,000 hours of expertise.” So of course, I calculate it.  I started as a research assistant when I was a junior in college at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base (3 months, avg 40 hours a week= 480 hrs) then stayed on through my senior year (8 months, avg 20 hours a week=640 hrs), then started my master’s program with about a 3 month break between, for 2 years (21 months- vacation and times when I was goofing off, avg 40 hours a week = 3360), then Mayo for 2.5 years (25 months- wasn’t always doing research and was on vacation, avg 40 hours a week= 4000 hrs), then PhD (22 months- lots of goofing off, avg 40 hrs a week= 3520 hrs). 


Now I am no statistics genius, but I think that adds up to more than 10,000. Crap. Where’s the magic? I am in fact at a surplus of 2,000 hours! Damn. Damn damn damn.

Perhaps it’s because it’s just not that simple.  Maybe it’s more than an endurance sport. If it were only endurance, this would be a lot simpler. There must be something else to this (please, let there be something else to this). I went back to the book and continued to read. As it turns out, experts are made because an expert works not just on the stuff they’re good at, but also the stuff that they aren’t good at. It’s not just the PRACTICE that’s important. It’s also that you have want to become BETTER at what you’re not good at already. That is significantly trickier.

How do I take this next step? How do I move from endurance to confident, passionate, thoughtful? And significantly for me, how do I do it in the way that I want to? To achieve the things I want to?  To find what’s best not just for me, but for my family? What are the things that I am not good at that I have to practice?

I’ve realized over the last 6 months or so that I struggle with the ‘philosophy’ part of getting a PhD. Seems silly, like I should’ve realized that was part of it before I started… Well, I don’t always read the directions before I attempt to put together the swing set, just ask Mike. I thought this would be a place where I could hone my skills, I could become better at solving practical problems, I could explore new health care and teamwork innovations and apply them within a new domain. As it turns out, yeah, that’s part of it, but it’s not the entire thing.

Philosophy: phi·los·o·phy (n.)

1.    Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.
2.    Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.
3.    A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry: the philosophy of Hume.
4.    The critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs.
5.    The disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology.
6.    The discipline comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
7.    A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory: an original philosophy of advertising.
8.    A system of values by which one lives: has an unusual philosophy of life.

Fascinating. The definition of this word is absolutely fascinating. I almost can’t believe it. The problem lies right there in the definition. I mean I love pursuing wisdom by intellectual means and self-discipline. I 100% believe in that. But, one of my biggest problems with getting a PhD is all the thinking about thinking. The lack of actual DOING- ‘rather than empirical methods’ and ‘underlying theory’. I had a fight with my advisor on my first week here because I want to focus on the front line, and how my research will impact what people DO, ie: will impact PRACTISE!!! He said to me, ‘well, Sarah. We’ve also got to think about how you’re going to contribute to the theoretical study of leadership.’ I must’ve made a face or something, because he said ‘what?’ and I almost said, well, I really don’t care about that so much.  Mercifully, my frontal lobe kicked in and I just shrugged.

As I approach my final year of the PhD, I am getting deeper and deeper into the philosophy bit, and I feel that I am losing my touch with reality. I still go back to the OR from time to time to remember why I am doing what I do, but it’s a struggle.  Mike says that this is a good thing because now I know more about what I should and shouldn’t do with my life, and he’s absolutely right. But for now, this is the part of practice where I have to work on the stuff that I’m not good at, and don’t really enjoy. Because maybe I’ve miscalculated, and my 10K is just around the corner.


  1. Dude! I totally know where you're coming from and that's why I stopped after my LLM. I needed to stop reading and writing about human rights issues and finally get out there and DO something. Although, I'm still not sure if I'm at the 'doing' stage yet...

  2. The problem with the 10K theory, at least as I understand it (I haven't read Gladwell's book), is that it mostly applies to activities or disciplines that have a very specific goal and are usually expressed, at least in part, in physical activity. To become a great violin player, you might read music, do hand exercises, and study theories of composition, but your skill is ultimately expressed by moving a bow over a violin--lots of work that leads up to a very narrow end, like the tip of a mountain. In the Ph.D. process, you're not training to do just one thing--you're learning to be a speaker, a writer, a thinker, and a doer. It's less like building a mountain and more like building a column. On the plus side, violins are not involved.