The Art of Practice

In a previous article I offered an outline of the personal transformation I’ve undergone in the past year and change. Long story short: I went from fat, miserable, and ineffective to a much better place. Maintaining and extending my new state will occupy the rest of my life, but the bulk of the change happened in just a few short months.

The engine that drove it was something I call my Practice.

A practice is the regular exercise of a discipline. Any discipline can form the basis of a practice: chess, aikido, yoga, carpentry… and virtually any activity can become a discipline if one approaches it with a certain curiosity and mindfulness. So there is no end to forms of practice, and surely there is a practitioner for every one.

But when does a practice become a Practice?

I observed above that the development of a discipline—the basis of a practice—requires a certain mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to turn a mirror on the mind and observe its thinking process. At some level, we develop a discipline by choosing to pursue and act on thoughts that advance it, and ignoring those that do not. Therefore a practice that develops a discipline out of mindfulness will enhance the development of any other practice one cares to pick up.

What practices support the development of mindfulness? As it turns out: all of them do, to the extent that one approaches the practice in a mindful fashion. Meditation is obviously a mindful act… but so is gardening, if that’s your thing. So any practice will develop at an accelerated pace, if approached mindfully. It’s a virtuous circle.

training-exercise-fitness-trainer-gym-workout-1187546-pxhere.comWhat if I have two practices… say, meditation—which develops mindfulness—and exercise? Fitness produces its own positive feedback loop, much like mindfulness. Also, a fitter body can experience deeper meditative states, accelerating the development of mindfulness. And a mindfulness discipline significantly reduces both stress and one’s capacity to make excuses, contributing to a fitter body. Each practice supports and enhances the other. Engaging in a small number of regular practices, carefully chosen for their synergies, can result in progress on all fronts that far exceeds what might have been, given different choices.

That’s a Practice with a capital P.

My own Practice began with exercise. I started a period of intensive business travel shortly after I left my wife in August of 2016. I was alone in another city with lots of time on my hands in the evenings: previously a recipe for eating poorly and drinking too damned much. But this time I had a subcontractor on site with me—actually staying in my hotel—and on day one I cracked a fateful joke: if you want to work with me, you’re going to have to work out with me. To my surprise, he agreed.

So now I was obligated. Every weeknight I met my guy in the hotel gym and we had a workout. I had recently made some changes to my diet as well—more on this in another post—and to my astonishment I did not experience the full-body ache and joint pain that I had grown accustomed to feeling after every workout, and which had really discouraged me from exercising more. So by the time my subcontractor got a better deal at a different hotel a few weeks later, I was hooked. We both bought memberships at a local gym, and continued our evening workouts there.

By the end of the year I’d made significant progress, physically. Lots of lessons there for a different article. For now, the point is that my exercise practice was established. I saw my trainer at least once a week, and we rapidly reached a point where his sessions were more coaching than training. I paid close attention to form to avoid injury, which I feared might ruin my streak. So I was intensely mindful during my workouts, and by the end of the year I had practiced that mindfulness almost daily for months.

In February I moved to a new client in a new city. No more trainer, but I could handle my own workouts by then. I started warming up for my workouts with some yoga moves I’d learned the previous year, recovering from an injury. Fatefully, I bought and read Tools of Titans (ToT) by Tim Ferriss.

For the uninitiated, Tim Ferriss is a rather odd cat who wrote a couple of books, made a bunch of money, got into tech angel investing, made a shitload of money, and then started a podcast. Tim puts some of the world’s most accomplished people in front of a microphone for a couple of hours and makes them explain how they got to be that way. It’s brilliant… but I’d never heard of it until ToT popped up in my Amazon recommendations. In this book, Tim synthesizes his learning across over a hundred of these interviews, identifying common features and patterns and compiling an incredible library of tips, tricks, hacks, and just plain good advice from the best in every field, broadly speaking, and on topics ranging from fitness to sales to psychedelic drugs.

The first thing I did after I put the book down was to subscribe to Tim’s podcast. Started with Episode 1, and as of today I’m on #161. Meanwhile, Tim has recorded 201 sessions, so I’m going to catch up with him before long.

Headspace: MeditationThe next thing I did was to download an app called Headspace.

Headspace is a phone app that brings meditation to the masses. It’s easy: you sit down for a few minutes, close your eyes, and listen to a chirpy Englishman walk you through some basic techniques in Vipassana meditation… except he doesn’t call it that, and you don’t need to care. Just focus on your breath. Start with five minutes. Before long you’ll be sitting for twenty, and things will look a little different.

It turns out that around 80% of Tim’s interviewees engage in some kind of mindfulness practice, the most common being some flavor of Vipassana meditation. It is by far the most significant commonality among this group of extraordinary people. And this is a diverse group, including Arnold SchwarzeneggerJamie FoxxTony RobbinsMaria PopovaPeter ThielMarc AndreessenAmanda PalmerMalcolm GladwellRick RubinReid HoffmanChase JarvisSam HarrisRainn Wilson, and at least 150 more. In other words, this is not selection bias at work: the mindfulness connection is 100% real.

So I started doing a Headspace session first thing in the morning. Another very common practice among Tim’s subjects was journaling, so I added five minutes of that after the morning meditation. If you’re going to be sitting all day it’s nice to get the blood moving first thing in the morning, so I added ten minutes of pretend yoga, which before long became real yoga once I caught the bug and started taking classes. I was planning to attend a wedding in El Salvador at the end of the summer, so I added ten minutes of Spanish study with Rosetta Stone. Within a week I had to set my alarm clock back an hour. By the second week, in my 5-minute journal entries, I was referring to all this as my Practice.

It turned out that adding elements to my Practice was easy. The hard part about developing a Practice is merely bringing it into existence. My evening workouts were secure, and that five-minute morning Headspace session—which soon ballooned to twenty minutes—served as a framework from which I could hang virtually any other task that I wanted to accomplish daily. I was careful only to add practices that I expected would enhance the others as described above. The results were extraordinary: despite a remarkably difficult year for reasons both public and private, I find myself feeling loose, strong, and upbeat in a way that would have astonished me a year ago. My productivity is an order of magnitude higher than last year. By any measure, from blood work to body fat, I’m in the best shape of my life.

I am, to my very bones, transformed.

My Practice has evolved. I have added some elements, and others have fallen away as time and experience have progressed. But there is a core set of practices that seems to be fundamental. They are all very common to Tim’s Titans, and it seems to me that eliminating any one of these would strip the capital P from my Practice:

  • Strength & conditioning training. Our bodies are designed to move and exert. When we don’t, nothing else works at peak capacity.
  • Yoga, a meditative practice that develops mobility and links motion to breath.
  • Vipassana meditation, which develops mindfulness by doubling down on yoga’s focus on the breath.
  • Journaling. The way I do it, basically garbage collection for the psyche. Getting it out of your head by putting it on the page.

This is not the only possible Practice: I presume any set of mutually amplifying practices would do. And clearly mine is not the only road to a Practice. Everyone must walk his own path.

My message is that there is a place beyond just doing lots of stuff. Pick the right stuff, do it regularly and in a mindful fashion, and you will have a Practice. You will still do lots of stuff. You will still work very hard at it all. But you will enjoy the experience more than you do now, and many of the most currently daunting parts will begin to seem… effortless. Things that previously never quite worked right, just will.

Your Practice will begin to feel like an asset, and then something very like a treasure. You will feel moved to protect it, and it will protect you in return.

Ultimately a Practice—which is by definition a self-sustaining construct—begins to take on a life of its own. This is the Art in the Art of Practice: first you mold your Practice, and then your Practice molds you.

Imagine what you might become.

pain begat practice
but pain has fallen away
while practice rises


Tell me why I'm full of shit!