“Practice makes perfect.” Surely a mantra we all heard as children…whether it was in sports, spelling, music or math. This was a standard line repeated by grown-ups who were just trying to help us learn. Practice is a good thing…right? But perfect? Rarely possible.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand perfection is a false master regardless of the task. My perfect custard might look like your messy pie. Your perfect swan dive might be my belly flop. Perfection is subjective. It’s as inaccurate a measure of success as coloring in the lines is for creativity.
Practice, however, is the part of this adage that is really more important. After years of being tethered to that false master of perfection, I’ve learned being open to the adventure that practice brings is freeing, encouraging and often surprising.
In my daily life, both writing and yoga teach me the delight is in the practice, not in the striving for perfection. I practice to finish something so I can try again. I practice to expand my perspective and learn more. I practice to get better and explore what’s next.
My yoga practice recently led me to a handstand and a backbend. My writing practice has sparked a curiosity I didn’t know I had. Both have given me a satisfaction I wouldn’t have discovered if I had been seeking perfection rather than practicing.
My writing often involves taking rambling notes of observations with no idea of what connect points may eventually arise. These notes may be random words scribbled on the back of receipts or emails I send myself while waiting for the gas tank to fill. Just the practice of capturing observations, turns of words or the echoes of people’s stories gives me huge pleasure – not because I’m using them to write a perfect best seller, but because they keep me curious.
The practice of writing is also calming. I can often tame those head chatter thoughts clanging around like pinball marbles once I take a few minutes to shoot them out through my fingers. If something insightful lands on the page, great. If a connection to someone comes of it, all the better.
But I know one thing for sure…I never want to perfect this practice of writing because then I’d stop asking questions and discovering new paths. Perfection is when the fun and discovery of it end.
When I first started frequenting yoga classes I thought the phrase “practice yoga” sounded a bit pretentious…and yoga isn’t supposed to be pretentious, right? At first, it often seemed the instructor who spoke the words “practice yoga” was a limber 20-something who didn’t get it was impossible for a middle aged woman to practice herself into a backbend or headstand.
After a couple of years of an increasingly frequent yoga practice and some very gifted and encouraging instructors, however, I now understand now why it’s called a practice. I initially saw yoga as striving toward an athletic goal like moving from a circuit of 30 squats to 40 squats to 50 squats.
I’ve discovered the real practice with yoga is the exact opposite of striving – it’s working from where you are at that moment. Maybe today I can do a backbend, but tomorrow I may not even be able to touch my toes. That’s ok… just enjoy and finish today’s practice and come next time ready to practice again.
In her book, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott speaks beautifully of practice and making a commitment to finishing (in this case she’s talking about writing but it’s an apt observation for any type of practice). “What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”
But finishing here doesn’t mean perfecting. There’s always more to see, learn and discover if we allow it and just keep practicing, not striving for that unreachable state of perfection.
I think I’ll stay on this path of practicing practice rather than practicing perfection for a while. It’s a lot more fun.