By Reba Hull Campbell
“Practice makes perfect.” Surely a mantra we all heard as children. Well-intentioned grown-ups who were just trying to help us learn echoed this standard line repeatedly, whether it was in sports, spelling, music or math.
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 strung along by that false master of perfection, I’ve learned that being open to the adventure practice brings is freeing, encouraging and often surprising.
In my daily life, I find the joy of practice in my writing, music and yoga. All three illustrate in different ways that the delight is in the practice, not in the striving for perfection. I practice to expand my perspective and learn more. I practice to finish something so I can try again. I practice to get better and explore what’s next. I practice so I can flex this amazing “inner beginner” that I’ve recently decided to let loose.
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.
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 by Anne Lamott’s definition doesn’t mean perfecting. There’s always more to see, learn and discover if we allow it and just keep practicing. Striving for that unreachable state of perfection is where the fun and discovery end.
In recent years, I’ve found great joy in playing … and practicing … music. For most of my life, I thought that enjoying music had to come from the listening, not participating. But middle-aged life has brought music to me in the form of uke, guitar and keyboard lessons.
I got into uke lessons after getting connected with a completely unintimidating group called “Sip ‘N Strum” that gathers weekly for a group lesson, a little sipping and a lot of fun. My daily uke practice began four years ago churning out deliciously easy C chords and monstrously difficult B chords. I was far from perfect, but I saw results quickly from this practice.
Last January, I started taking keyboard lessons. I added piano practice to my day and found I could increasingly pick up on patterns and progressions. Then in July, I bought a three-quarter size guitar on a whim (I’ve been told uke is the gateway drug to guitar) and added another 15 minutes to my daily practice learning pentatonic scales and progressing to bar chords.
I rediscovered that when your inner beginner tackles something seemingly complex like music, practice is fun because there’s so much to learn. Just 15 minutes a day brought results. But the best part of these adult music lessons was knowing I didn’t have to be perfect. I really didn’t even have to be good. I just had to enjoy it. And my wonderful instructors all reinforce that beautifully!
I recently had the chance to join other much younger music students to play in a “showcase” (in my day we would have called it a recital). I figured if they had put in the practice and muscled up the courage to play on stage, I could surely do that, too.
As I positioned myself behind the bright red keyboard, I conjured up my vision of channeling Laurie Partridge playing “I Think I Love You” with her musical made-for-tv family. Sure, I missed a couple of chords as we made our way through the song, but I’d practiced enough to know how to jump right back in and find my place. All my practice may not have resulted in perfection, but it sure did give me enough confidence to keep moving and not freeze when I missed a chord. Plus, it was just fun.
I know I’ll never play lead uke on the Grand Ole Opry stage or have a piano solo with a cool rock band. But for now, I know I don’t have to practice toward perfection. I practice to learn and enjoy and be part of something bigger. That’s perfectly good enough for my musical inner beginner.
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 right then. 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.
I think I’ll stay on this path of practicing practice rather than practicing perfection for a while. It’s a lot more fun.
After more than 35 years working in politics, communications, management, fundraising and government relations, Reba Campbell is taking a gap year as a rookie retiree to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. Reba is passionate about travel, writing, learning to play the uke and staying connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at [email protected] or through her blog at http://randomconnectpoints.blogspot.com.