"What we practice, we get better at"
I've been thinking more and more about the profound implications of a simple idea: the idea that what we practice we get better at.
Like so many useful truths it's a no-brainer. If we want to get better at something we do it again, and again. We learn more about it; we read a book, watch a YouTube, take a seminar. All around us people are improving all kinds of skills from how to knit a hat to how to put out a structure fire.
What's interesting and important to me is that we usually only apply this simple maxim to external things. To the things we do and make and create. To the problems we solve in the world.
We don't apply it to our inner selves nearly as consistently. We don't practice the inner things we want to improve.
And we all have wishes for improvement in our inner selves.
We may want to be more reliable, or more patient, or kinder, or more generous. We may want to show up on time more consistently. We way want to listen to our kids more fully.
Or maybe we don't have clear goals for our inner life and instead our mind goes to the things we don't like about ourselves. What is that for you? If you start the sentence, "what I don't like about myself is...." and pause with that a moment. What comes up?
But here's the thing: if we just focus on what we don't have we are only reinforce a kind of internal impoverished mindset. But if we can focus on what we would like to be better at we can take it out of the realm of frustration or wishful thinking and instead practice that trait we'd like to strengthen.
I've been thinking a lot lately about strengthening my ability to ask for help. I've always been a bit of a go-it-alone guy and not only does that wear me out, sometimes it damages my relationships. It's been so helpful to change that little by little. Of course, as with all things human, I know i have to be smart about this, feeling my way into whom to ask for what. But so many people in my life (all of our lives?) are so willing to help.
Even people who aren't yet in my life! Here's an example of that that happened last summer, one that inspires me to keep working with this. Maybe you also have examples in your life of when you acted in a way that stretched you and inspires you to keep developing your best self?
We'd had some work down on our house. We had contractors here completing our half-finished stairs (it used to be a duplex and the stairs were taken out in the 1940's). We had to move a window to make the stairs work right and the carpenters discovered the siding on the entire south side of the house was rotten. So our other house work plans, and our a chunk of our budget, shifted and we had to redo the siding and exterior window trim on that side of the house.
Our contractor got that taken care of, but I wanted to do at least some of the work myself so I was working on painting the new window trim. Then I hit a problem: the upper window was too high for my 22' extension ladder. And darn it I was in the middle of painting, the day was getting on, and wanted to get the whole job done.
It was Sunday at 6pm. Off I went to Home Depot to buy a longer ladder. But darn it: they were expensive, $280 for a 28' ladder. I stood there debating back and forth what to do. That impatient do-it-yourself voice within me was screaming, "Oh just buy it, just get it done, you have a tall house so you need this ladder." So I put this enormous ladder on one of their big carts and wheeled it - tricky getting around corners! - to the check out.
There were two people in front of me and the guy at the head of the line had some problem involving tricky customer service so we were standing there for awhile. Then the person right in front of me turns out and says, "Hey how much is that big ladder?" - almost $300 I admitted - "Darn," he said, "that's a lot, I have one just like it lying around at my place."
At that point the "just buy it, just do it yourself" spell weakened a little. I could feel the tension in my forehead and the raggedness of my breathing relax a little. And then I surprised myself by asking this stranger if I could borrow his ladder.
His response was immediate and relaxed. Like he has strangers asking him to borrow ladders all the time. "Sure," he said, "just follow me home and pick it up." A total stranger! And he was as good as his word. Without asking anything from me, he generously lent me his ladder. I finished my painting.
I did find a way of thanking him: I did a repair to the rope and pulley that lifts the ladder extension. I realized even without arranging a payment or an exchange there is often a
way to give right back. That helping engenders more helping.
Sometimes we can trust another. We can trust their generosity. We can trust the good hearts of people. I hope to keep practicing this inner skill of asking for help.
What would you like to develop about your inner life?
PS. Some interesting research suggests that in changing habitual responses it makes a big difference if we spend a moment contemplating our positive qualities. So easily the mind goes to the negative which reinforces itself. ("I'm always this way" etc.).
In studies described by Alex Korb in his excellent book The Upward Spiral he demonstrates that taking a moment to activate your knowledge of your good qualities makes a big difference. In the studies they had participants ask themselves questions like, "Have you ever forgiven another person when he or she has hurt you?" or "Have you ever encouraged a friend to pursue a goal?" And this simple mindset intervention made it surprisingly more possible for the study participants changes.
So contemplate your good qualities sometimes! Affirm your ability to be a better person, and then practice those skills.