In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “theory of 10,000 hours,” the idea that it takes that much time practicing something to be truly great at it. Envision Michael Jordan training endlessly with trainer Tim Grover or Larry Bird shooting jumpers in a vacant gym long into the night. Think of Peyton Manning obsessively watching game film and absorbing every detail. Picture Bill Gates as a teenager programming away on a massive computer console, and Stephen King hammering away on a typewriter as the editor of his high school newspaper. Each of these men is known as being great in his field and each has far surpassed 10,000 hours practicing his respective crafts.
But practice is more than just skill development and working on specific abilities. At its core, practice is habit-development and the forming of instincts. The goal of practice is to become natural at something, to excel at it without great effort or focused thought. Practice is working toward learning a second nature.
To think of practice in this manner moves it beyond the realm of gymnasiums and classrooms. Instead, all of life is practice. We are always forming habits and honing, or dulling, instincts. Every day we are practicing interactions and attitude control (or lack thereof). We are either passive or intentional in our development, but either way we are forming a second nature. Actually we are further forming a second nature, since we do almost all of this shaping and forming subconsciously.
Every one of our daily patterns is practice. How we choose to spend our time, expend effort, and prioritize goals or tasks is part of forming that second nature. No, they aren’t drills or homework, but all of them prepare us for … something. Depending on how we go about them, we are headed toward productivity or fruitlessness, toward learning or atrophy, growth in character or decline.
Unlike sports or school, life requires practicing while we play. We don’t get to have a prep time and then go do the real thing. We improve or degenerate while the stakes are high. It all matters. And that’s why we shouldn’t think of life as “going to practice” the way we might have headed to the locker room after school back in the day. Instead we should think of every day as entering the game (or the boardroom or the laboratory or the studio, whatever your proclivity may be) and seeking to be better than the day before. Yesterday was practice for today, and today is practice for tomorrow.
Everything we do contributes to improvement or deterioration. What we choose to do now prepares us to be better in the future, even in subtle ways. So we must practice our relationships, our work, our rest, our faith. This is no prep session. This is real.