The belief that “practice makes perfect” is only partially true. Practice [1], and the repetition that is a part of it, over time, may translate into exactness and precision in the repetition. It may even lead to one achieving such a high degree of mastery that it can invite improvisation and the ability to think and do things on the spot, as a mark of creativity and expertise, or the ability to address a complex problem or to defuse a volatile situation. In my work, however, consistently showing up to practice, not just the practice itself, invites an opportunity for self knowledge and experimentation.

For example, as a daily practice that involves moving my body, my yoga practice may be a little different each day. My overall health improves with each day that I do it, but maybe one day, my left hip does not cooperate as well as it did the day before, and I am invited to simply let that be and do what I can and improvise. There was a time, when I was younger, that I would just refuse to accept such physical limitation and push myself. My impatience and frustration left me with little to no space to explore, improvise, see what was possible and dare I say, grow. Sometimes that led to injury, and other times I pushed my limit a bit further, and that was good. Learning one’s limits by testing them, also contributes to building self awareness; I am now learning to do that without self judgment. Sharing these ideas with my friend Becca brought out questions for her such as: when is enough practice enough? When can we say we have mastered something and happily move on? For Becca, mastery is a goal of practice or practicing something. There are also certain activities for which practice is done privately (like for me, playing my ukulele during COVID lockdown), just for the joy of it, with no keen desire for mastery and no interest in public or private acclaim.

My contributions to systems change work have involved years of practice, collaboration, and testing of limits as well, not just of my own, but of my collaborators and their organizations too. We do not always get the chance to continue practicing together, but from time to time, we check in with each other to see where we have made gains, where we might have done things a little differently, and where our respective paths are taking us. Our intention is that by being both strategic and empathic in our work, most of us will remain open to learning, especially during moments of discomfort.

To paraphrase Henri Lefebvre [2], theory, or conceptual thought, is a path to action, but the two can never be completely separated from each other. Ultimately, imagination can emerge from one’s practice or from observing someone else’s to create a new way of doing things, a new practice, which some might even call, an innovation. And because it is not fixed, practice, whatever that is, strategic planning, or yoga, or playing the ukulele, opens possibilities in both the present (i.e., in being) and in the future (i.e., becoming). That is why it is important to not lose hope in one’s practice, even on those days with the stiff hips in yoga, or the unformed callous missing those ukulele strings, or the difficult conversations in boardroom meetings when tackling new issues and unfamiliar experiences.

You might feel like a hummingbird flapping its beautiful wings rapidly, and in suspension. To the onlooker, or even to yourself, it might seem as though nothing is changing, no matter how hard you work at it, and how frequent you practice. In fact, you are working hard, and you are showing up, and you are not giving up. You are learning, perhaps transforming, and ultimately growing as a person.

Notes:

[1] In the dictionary definition, practice is both a verb and a noun, depending on how you use the word. As a noun, practice is the “actual application of an idea” and the verb ‘to practice’ is to carry out or perform a particular activity.
[2] I drew this bit of knowledge from Lefebvre from an excerpt of his writing in a book about contemporary art, simply named, ‘Practice’, edited by Marcus Boon and Gabriel Levine, published in 2018 by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. The excerpt in ‘Practice’ is taken from a translation of Lefebvre’s work ‘De L’Etat’. Vol 4: Les contradictions de l’état moderne: La dialectique et/de l’état (Paris: Union Generale d’Edition, 1978).

Illustration: Hummingbird. By Leela Viswanathan

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