You Are What You Practice

“We are what we repeatedly do.”

In the mid-fifties an up and coming sportscaster named Howard Cosell interviewed Carl Furillo, the right fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Cosell began the interview by describing Furillo in glowing terms as the master of the right field at Ebbets Field, the Dodger home stadium. The right field at Ebbets, with the odd angles of the outfield wall, was notorious for its difficulty to play. With obvious reverence for the older and well-known Furillo, Cosell asked, “This is such a difficult fence to play Carl. No one else can even come close to playing it as well as you can, how did you ever learn to do it?”

Furillo looked at him strangely, shrugged his shoulders and replied as if he were speaking to an idiot, “I friggin’ practiced!”

The message is clear: To get good at something it’s necessary to practice.

Carl Furillo knew that his expertise was hard earned. It wasn’t magic, a gift from the gods, good luck, or wishful thinking that made him the baseball player that he was. As an all-star veteran who was out on the field everyday the answer was easy-Practice.

Compare this with a recent ad on television that promotes weight loss with the promise that, “You don’t have to change your life, you only have to take a pill.” We live in a culture that sells the quick fix, instant gratification, and get it all right now, on a daily basis. While we may understand, at least intellectually, the importance of practice when we casually comment to our children that it’s necessary to practice when learning to play the piano, type, write in cursive, or drive a car, it’s largely an idea that’s unexamined.

The media and entertainment industry create the illusion that by simply stepping into the right car, dressing in the latest fashions, or dyeing our hair a certain color, our goals will be instantly attained. The idea of committing to a practice to achieve mastery or personal fulfillment is not a highly endorsed idea. When we’re constantly fed a diet of “Fast, temporary relief” there is very little incentive to consider a practice as a way to positively take charge of our health, behaviors, relationships, attitude, or over-all success in life, to say nothing of developing leaders.

The notions we do have of practice are through the realm of sports or the performing arts, where perhaps we’ve had some experience, or at least enough familiarity (mostly as fans), to know that it’s a requirement for success. We hear it in the well-worn joke about the couple that arrives in New York City from Florida who, finding themselves lost in the Lower East Side, ask the first cab driver they see, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (this can be changed to Yankee Stadium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Madison Square Garden).

“Practice!” the cabbie shouts back.

Yes, we understand that athletes and performers practice but what is invisible to us is how much they practice. They continue to practice during the entire season, during the off-season, and even while they’re in a championship series or in a heavily booked performance cycle. In a recent interview with Ellen Degeneres, you could hear the audible gasp of the primarily adolescent female audience, as Britney Spears reported that it’s not uncommon for her to practice her singing and dance moves 12 hours a day; and her life is a constant cycle of practice, performance, practice. Even when “I’m performing” she said, “I’m all about rehearsing my songs and dances”. The young female audience’s fantasy about being “the next Britney” if they have the right hairstyle and can perform a few snappy turns in front of the mirror was suddenly shattered. (Ellen Degeneres Show 7/8/04)

Larry Byrd, the veteran all-star player, for the Boston Celtics, would faithfully go to the arena two hours before every game, whether it was at home or away, regular season or play-offs, and walk the court and practice his shots alone. Sometimes he would sit in the stands and see if he could make a basket from there. After the Celtics won the 1986 Championship after a grueling season and playoffs reporters asked him what he planned to do next and he replied, “I’ve still got some things I want to work on. I’ll start my off-season training next week. Two hours a day, with at least a hundred free throws.” (Mastery, George Leonard, Plume Books, 1992) Michael Jordan, at the top of his game when he was called the greatest basketball player the game has ever known, would reputedly be the first at practice and one of the last to leave.

Athletes practice three times as much as they play and this is even a higher ratio for performing artists. All this confirms the old martial arts story that defines the master as the one who stays on the mat longer than anyone else. Asked by a student how long it will take to learn a new skill or a new way of being I’ll often quote how military jumpmasters reply to the question “How long do I have to pull my ripcord?”

“The rest of your life.” We have this moment to practice and we can commit to a life long practice.

Furthermore, if we would heard a baseball player say, “I’m not going to batting practice anymore, I’ve already done that”, or a heart surgeon who said it wasn’t necessary to practice his craft anymore it would sound ridiculous to us. Interviews with athletes during championship games who have just won will inevitably say it’s important to continue to practice the basics and the losers of that game will inevitably say they need to get back to basics. It would sound preposterous for them to say they didn’t need to practice anymore or they had already practiced the basics and they wanted something else to practice. Master musicians will speak about how they still practice their scales, award-winning actors regularly practice vocal phrasings, internationally renowned ballerinas still work on pliés.

Every time I train or teach aikido I still practice tenkan, a turning movement and the very first technique I learned thirty-three years ago. Because I may have gained competency in the movement over three decades of training doesn’t mean I abandon it. To begin with, it keeps the movement sharp and fully embodied which is important as it is fundamental to the art, secondly, and perhaps most important, who I am in the movement changes because of the practice. When I say, “who I am” in the movement I’m referring to how I’m observing myself, others, and the environment, that is, how my awareness has grown and therefore expanded my choices, and how my will has been strengthened to enact those choices.

If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our life, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen; to become more effective leaders it’s necessary to practice. We also know that to achieve mastery it’s necessary to go beyond our comfort zone (Researchers say 300 repetitions produce body memory, which is the ability to enact the correct movement, technique, or conversation by memory. It’s also been pointed out that 3000 repetitions creates embodiment, which is not having to think about doing the activity, as it is simply part of who we are). Humans will engage in a practice if they are passionate about what they are practicing. We are passionate about the practice if it is relevant to the life we want to create. Exemplary leaders are passionate about creating life-affirming futures.

Practice is formalized in sports and the performance arts, why not in leadership?

The following story reveals another pertinent reason why leaders need to pay attention to what they are practicing. During the late nineties a strange set of circumstances appeared around the shooting of an Arizona Highway Patrolman in a remote part of the southwestern desert. Reconstructing the events around his death it became clear that the patrolman had stopped someone, they had a shootout, he had wounded his assailant, but the shooter was able to drive off after having killed the officer. What was odd in this tragic story was that the dead Highway Patrolman’s weapon was holstered and the three spent shells of the rounds he had fired were found in the front left breast pocket of his uniform. It confounded the investigators until it was revealed that the training procedures of Arizona Highway Patrolman at the firing range was to fire off three rounds, pick up the casings, and then put them in their left front breast pocket.

The story of the Highway Patrolman is a dramatic illustration, however grim, that we are what we practice. When we’re under pressure, stress, conflict, or some form of transition we will inevitably fall to the level of our training and rarely, if ever, rise to our level of expectation. It’s critical for leaders to choose their practices wisely and to engage in them with conscious intent. The value and necessity of practice in sports, recreational activities, or the performing arts is part of our common sense. But it utterly escapes us when we think of practices for leadership and building character virtues within business, the military, government, public institutions, or at home. The claim of the Leadership Dojo is that leadership is a skill and an art that can be trained through recurrent practices, just as one learns how to swing a golf club, ski, or hit a tennis ball. It’s possible to strengthen a muscle such as a bicep, why can’t it be equally possible to train the muscles of integrity, confidence, collaboration, courage, and empathy. We can build muscles in every dimension of our life, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The catch is to practice and go beyond our comfort zone.

At an even more fundamental level it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that we are always practicing. In other words, the body is incapable of not practicing. And what we practice we become. Our biology is organized to take in stimulus from the environment and we then shape ourselves to cope with and effectively deal with that stimulus. Even as you sit here reading this book you are shaping yourself by your posture, the way you’re breathing, what you’re thinking, feeling, and sensing. While this may seem subtle and far below the level of our awareness, over time this has a powerful affect in how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us.

For example, the next time you’re walking down the street notice the expressions on people’s faces and the way they hold their bodies. Notice the down turned mouths, the hunched shoulders, the scowls, grimaces, and even the rare few whose faces reflect joy and a positive attitude toward life and ask yourself what they’ve been practicing. The way we comport ourselves is a direct reflection of what we have been practicing.

Because it does not live in our common sense that we change through practices, we live in hope and fantasy about people and cultures changing by simply being introduced to a new idea. The consequences of this can be a downward spiral of frustration, resignation and ultimately despair. Take the recent example of the so-called liberation of Iraq. George Packer, a correspondent living in Baghdad wrote that, “Iraqis were told they were free, they expected to be free, they had been waiting for years to be free—but they still didn’t feel free. And so a depression set in almost at once.” In the same article Akila al-Hashemi, one of the three women appointed to the Governing Council and who was fifteen when the Baath party took power was quoted as saying “We are still under the shock, we are still afraid. Now I ‘m fifty. You see? You can imagine—can I change in two days, in two months, in two years?

Packer further quotes from a prospectus of the Gilgamesh Center for Creative Thinking written by Dr. Baher Buti, an Iraqi psychiatrist, who states that the Iraqi people, “…lack the power to experience freedom, they don’t comprehend the correct performance of democracy, they cannot deal with group working…”

After 35 years of living under the iron fist of the Baath Party the expectation by invaders, occupiers, and Iraqis themselves was that they would suddenly become model citizens engaged in an active, thriving democracy. When this didn’t occur, as it didn’t when Poland turned to democracy after decades of communism, a mood of resentment and then despondency took over.

When the traditional paradigm of learning is that teachers talk, students listen, and knowledge is in books it should be no surprise that our expectations fall short when we are asked to take on new roles without the proper practices.

Books, DVDs, or a one-day seminar cannot teach leadership. It is necessary, nay critical, that emerging leaders commit to practices that allow them to embody new ways of being and acting.

Before we look at the type of practices used in the Leadership Dojo it’s useful to look at the distinctions between reflexes, habits, routines, practices, and generative ontological practices.

A reflex is an involuntary, physiological response as a result of the nervous system’s reaction to a stimulus. This could be a sneeze, which is triggered by a nerve impulse sent from a nerve center in response to a nerve receptor’s reaction to a stimulus. Another example of a reflex is the gag reflex. If something is lodged in our throat or if our throat is touched too firmly we will cough or gag reflexively. A reflex is hard wired in our nervous system. Reflexes come with the package. There is no choice, training or practice required for the reflex to be engaged.

A habit and a routine are the outcome of training in certain practices. A habit is a behavior that is regular, repetitive and unconscious. In the west, for example, when two people meet for the first time they have the habit of shaking hands. In the same situation in India they will place their hands together and bow to the other. As a social habit this is an unconsidered and unrealized behavior in the sense that it does not have to be at the level of conscious thought to be enacted. When it is learned at an early age there is choice and it is done consciously. But the behavior quickly recedes to the background of our consciousness and we simply find ourselves extending our hand when we meet someone. We are not exercising choice. In our inquiry of training leaders we do not use the term habit to describe a behavior that is embodied, although that’s what it is. We don’t use it as it connotes unconsciousness and something that may be “negative”, a “bad” habit like smoking, or it’s trivialized as “only” a habit.

A routine is the way a set of tasks is arranged that is typically repetitive and unvarying. Routines may have longer horizons of time like a one’s routine for a week. Or a routine may have a shorter horizon of time as in one’s routine after they come home from work. Routines are also embodied but again they connote an unreflective behavior that lacks the element of choice. Like habits, routines are often inherited or unconsciously adopted from our family of origin, culture, media influences, or the social groups with which we spend most of our time. They are often not behaviors in which we consciously commit to having as part of our life. We find ourselves in a particular drift in our life and in this lack of conscious intent we embody habits and routines that are present in our behaviors but remain in the background of our awareness. Habits may be
useful, like how we drive our cars, or harmful, like smoking, but in either case they become so much a part of us we do not live with them as if we are making a choice.

A practice is a conscious choice we make to train ourselves so we will behave and act in a particular way so that it becomes embodied, or part of who we are. To choose a practice is to have a narrative why one is committing to this practice. For example, one may choose not to eat anything or drink alcohol three hours before going to bed because we know we will sleep more soundly or that it will help us lose weight. One may choose a practice of saving money every month as a way to prepare for a child’s college education.

A generative, or ontological practice is a conscious choice to embody a behavior that can be used in whatever situation we find ourselves. It is a commitment to a way of being in the world. It is life affirming, creative, and it produces a reality by how we orient to our life situation. Learning to type is a specific or ontical practice, it is specific to a certain skill and it takes care of a specific concern. But typing is useful only when we are typing. A generative practice we can use anytime, anyplace, even when we are learning to type. Generative practices are what we are concerned with in the Leadership Dojo in producing exemplary leaders. In this case we are the practice. It is a noun not something we do but who we are and what it makes us.