Everything is practice. – Pele
In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki
A musician practices music to become comfortable with what doesn’t come naturally. It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally uncomfortable to learn and practice a new piece, a new instrument, or a new musical skill. Through good practice, however, a passage of music or a musical skill becomes more natural. Eventually, it requires little or no thought to play.
All good lawyers approach their legal careers with practice as well. We may have mastered many skills, but laws change, rules of procedure change, client development changes – even the very nature of law has changed over the years. Practice is essential to master your career, maintain some level of mastery, and adapt to the ever changing legal market takes constant practice.
While your career may consume the majority of your days, weeks, and years, it is not the whole of your life. You have relationships, casual and close. You have other interests and activities unrelated to the law – or at least, I hope you do. You have a physical life, a mental life, an emotional life, a social life, and perhaps a spiritual life, that takes attentive learning and constant practice.
Professions and the arts have long traditions of formal education and continuous practice. Historically, however, our culture seems to assume we already know how to have a meaningful life and that living requires no practice. Too many of us adopt that assumption and don’t bother to learn or practice. Some of us blame other people or our work if we don’t have strong relationships, a rich mental life, and a fulfilling emotional life. You are an attorney with a life. You have a pretty good idea of what it takes to develop a quality practice of law, and it’s a safe assumption that you are visiting this website to gain some insight into how to develop a quality practice of life.
From years of learning and practicing the craft of music, I’ve come to realize there are approaches to practicing that help you improve, and there are approaches to practicing that only reinforce ineffective and even harmful habits.
You’ve heard the old maxim “practice makes perfect,” and if perfect was really possible, that might work. I think a better way to frame it is “better practice makes better,” and that involves approaching any life skill with a better attitude of practice.
So, what is an attitude of practice?
You know you’re coming at an aspect of life with a good attitude of practice when you are focused, present, and open. As an example, let’s take communication with someone close to you. This can be one of the most difficult life skills and it takes constant, better practice. A good attitude of practice in this skill means you are focusing on what you are communicating and on what the other person is communicating to you. You drop your assumptions. You turn off the distractions, both internal and external, and really focus on what is being said. This will result in you being truly present in the communication. You are immersed in the here and now of the communication rather than what was said yesterday or what might be said next. All of that depends upon being open in your approach to what is really being communicated. You are able to let go of your preconceptions, your agenda, your “case”, and your need to be right. You won’t get it perfectly, but with practice, you will get better over time.
What gets in the way of good practice?
Looking back on my law school days, it seems now that the primary job of my first year professors was to pound it into my mind that I really had no clue how little I knew. Over time, I grew to be attached to getting it right and being perfect. When I got out of law school and began working, I was terrified of ever admitting I didn’t know something. I was sure the firm partners would fire me and I would never be able to keep any clients if I ever made a mistake.
Unfortunately, I brought that same mind set to everything else in my life. I wanted to be right (though I was never sure what that meant) in my personal relationships, my hobbies, my emotions – everything. I didn’t want to learn or practice those. I just wanted to be magically right; to be instantly perfect; and never make a mistake.
Well, it took a divorce and sliding into deep depression for me to finally let go of the need to be right, to be perfect, and to never make a mistake. Once that happened, I could adopt an attitude of practice and a beginner’s mind in all parts of my life. I could let go of anger, guilt, and victim-orientation, admit I really didn’t know, and begin to learn how to really live.
Next post on Friday I will share with you my seven deadly obstacles to an attitude of practice.