Do you remember when you first started learning a new skill?
The skill could be anything: Riding a bike; learning how to cook; even something as basic as walking or talking or reading.
At the beginning, it was really hard, wasn’t it? But as you kept at it, going through the motions over and over, something amazing happened. You maintained your balance a little longer each time. You managed to get a little closer to achieving that perfect apple crumble texture. You walked a little further, talked bigger words and read thicker books.
In short, you got better.
Why did you get better? We all know the answer: Because we practiced.
But this isn’t an article targeted at trying to drive home the point that practice makes perfect. Because we already know that.
What this article is aiming to do is to make you ask yourself: What exactly are you practicing?
When we think of the word, “practice”, we immediately think of piano lessons. Playing a sport. Taking language classes.
In other words, we think of practice as something we do when we are learning a skill. And that’s true.
But learning a skill is not the only time we are practicing something. In fact, we are really practicing something all of the time.
All the time? What do I mean by that?
Let me use an example everyone can relate to. When you first wake up in the morning, did you have to think about how to get out of bed? How to walk to the bathroom? How to brush your teeth? How to relieve yourself?
No, I don’t think so. In fact I’m willing to bet that you probably woke up and performed all of the above without even thinking about it. And before you knew it, you had already done it.
In other words, you had practiced doing all of these tasks so many times over, to the point that it became totally subconscious. You didn’t need to expend any effort to ensure that they were done properly, because you had simply become that good at it. We are (I hope) all bona fide experts in our morning routines.
The above process of how practice makes us experts in just about everything we do is thanks to the wonderful ability of our brains to rewire itself to make tasks we perform frequently easier. Think of the brain as a thick web of nerve cells that are linked to each other. Each nerve cell represents a part of the brain that governs some part of us: our thoughts, our actions and our feelings. So when we do a task over and over, the same nerve cells keep getting used over and over, and this forges links between this same group of nerve cells. Each time you do it, more and more links are formed, until it gets to the point that this group of nerve cells is so strongly linked that it takes zero effort to perform the task.
Cool, you think. That’s great to know. But up until now, I’ve only been showing you the bright side of practice. The Thought Experiment firmly believes that when it presents something, it must present the whole truth – even if it is a painful one. For a painful truth is better than a sweet lie.
Practice makes us experts, yes. If what we practice is something good, such as learning new skills that enhance our lives and that of others, then we become experts in a good thing. But what if the thing that we practice is something bad?
What do I mean by bad? Let’s start with something you may not have even considered when you started reading my article: Addictions.
Yes, addictions. Drug addictions, gambling addictions, pornography addictions, internet addictions. It can even be something like having a short temper, or find it really easy to lie over and over. How did these addictions and bad habits arise in what used to be former non-addicts?
Well, these addictions arose in exactly the same way that practice in a skill makes us perfect: What makes some people experts also makes others addicts. The only difference was in the activities that were being practiced. While some were practicing how to eat right and exercise regularly, others were practicing how to succumb to the lures of getting high, winning big or flying into a rage.
At this point, let’s fine-tune our definitions a little bit to set the record straight:
Practicing something that is desirable makes you an expert. Practicing something that is undesirable makes you an addict.
Okay, so you don’t have any of the serious addictions I was talking about above? If so, good for you. But if we follow the definition I’ve just stated above, then basically anytime you’re not doing something desirable, you’re doing something undesirable. I can think of a few examples:
- You just got your paycheck and you’re feeling loaded. Walking past a shop, something attractive catches your eye. Before you know it, you’re whipping your credit card out and telling yourself, “It’s a reward I deserve for working so hard.” At the end of the month, when the credit card statement comes, you heave a sigh and tell yourself you’ll save more next month. Cool story bro.
- You didn’t do too well on last year’s health screening and you know your family has a history of heart disease. But it’s lunchtime and that fried chicken is looking really good right now. Soon you’re wolfing it down, knowing you’ll feel slightly nauseous afterwards and swear off eating it for a few months – or so you think. Come to think of it, there was a salad stall you’d been meaning to try. Oh well, another time then.
- It’s been a long day at work and you just got home. You recently made a resolution to learn the guitar, but as you slump on your couch, you realize your TV remote is closer to you than your guitar, which is all the way at the other side of the room. In the blink of an eye, it’s midnight and as you crawl into bed you wonder, “Where did all that time go?”
- Finally the weekend has come and you’ve been telling yourself to get started on a workout regime. But suddenly, you think of that new awesome computer game you just bought and now you’re itching to try it out. It’s okay, you’ll just give it a brief once-over and then you’re off to the gym. You only come to your senses when you realize it’s getting dark outside and you feel your stomach rumbling. Of course, it’s already closing time at the gym.
The list of undesirables and distractions is endless. Netflix. Youtube. That soft bed of yours. Every time you choose to partake in these things over the things that you know you should be doing, you’re practicing how to become a better addict. I know I sound harsh, and perhaps unnecessarily so, but consider this: All of us have a limited and unknown amount of time to spend on this earth. Do we want to spend this precious time developing addictions, or expertise in something good?
Maybe everything I’ve said is hitting you like a ton of bricks. Maybe you’re suddenly identifying all sorts of activities you engage in on a daily basis that you wish you didn’t. Maybe you have a long list of activities you did want to engage in but didn’t. You might be thinking of all that time you’ve wasted, developing bad habits rather than good ones. If this is the case, don’t despair. Don’t give in to the temptation of desensitization “Well I’ve screwed up this much, so what’s wrong with continuing with the status quo? It’s too late and too hard to undo it all now.” and rationalization “Actually what I’m doing isn’t all that bad, I know plenty of people who are much worse off than me.”
That’s your emotions talking. That’s your self-pity talking. And that’s your brain’s attempt to take the easy way out. We have to remind ourselves to think objectively, and that means understanding that if our brains can be rewired to make us experts or addicts at something, it means it’s also possible to rewire our brains to “overwrite” our bad habits with good ones. So stop throwing that pity party for yourself – your time is far more valuable than to be wasted on something like that.
So don’t give up. Make every day count. Every day is an opportunity to reverse the damage and lay down the groundwork for good habits. And remember, it only gets easier, not harder. Carpe Diem everyone!