This month marks the winter Olympic games, where athletes from across the globe compete, each at the top of their field. Regardless of one’s personal preferences and views about sports, the physical mastery these individual have accomplished through dedication, patience, and effort is truly inspiring.
A number of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book The Outliers that 10,000 hours of practice would place one at the top of their field. Citing one study and a few pop culture examples, the “10,000 hour rule” took off in the public discourse.
Those who published the study have since critiqued his interpretation of their work. They concur that “in many areas of human endeavor it takes many, many years of practice to become one of the best in the world,” but go on to highlight a different, perhaps more encouraging conclusion.
But we see the core message as something else altogether: In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement… but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.
— A. Ericson, R. Pool. “Malcolm Gladwell Got Us Wrong.” Salon.
There are two key points here that are relevant to mindfulness practice, and to our work as educators. First, as human beings we each have a vast potential to grow and learn. Second, our capacity to do so depends on what we practice.
As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent. In other words, we’ll get better at whatever we practice. This is as true for our inner life as it is for outer skills. The emerging neuroscience of the last decades demonstrates how dedicated practice of anything can actually changes the shape and functioning of our brains. Practice worrying and you’ll get really good at worrying. Practice being angry and you will become very successful at feeling angry. Practice patience, joy, or generosity, and those qualities will improve.
We can use the occasion of the Olympic Games to reflect on our own lives. What are we practicing each day? What do we want get better at? Where would you like to be in ten years, twenty years? Mindfulness practice gives us an edge to stay focused and not get distracted on the long road to our destination.
We can also inspire our students to aim high and put in the time and energy to accomplish their goals. Talk with them about their aspirations. Use the Olympic athletes as an example to help them to conceive of their life in larger terms: we get better at what we practice. As poet Mary asks, what would they like to do with this “one wild and precious life?”