A short read yet full of insightful pearls of wisdom – what it takes to most effectively practice to level up your game while living a life full of peace and fulfillment. Author Thomas Sterner is an accomplished musician, concern piano technician, and avid golfer. Through his personal journey of mastering piano performance, learning golf, and restoring complicated pianos, Tom told a compelling story about how he achieved peace, joy, and fulfillment through practicing – which in turn helped him to achieve. “Focusing on the process instead of the end goal” is easier said than done, but Tom offered some practical advice. My biggest takeaways include:

1. Process not product – have the right mindset.

What is practicing, and why practicing > learning? To the author, “the word practice implies the presence of awareness and will. The word learning does not. When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal.”

  • This reminds of the Little Book of Talent by Dan Coyle who said people in talent hotbeds have special relationships with practicing. This special relationship is not only about the 10,000 hour-rule mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, but also about the “deep practice” with the correct mindset . This mindset is something Sterner refers to as the “Practicing Mind.”
  • The Practicing Mind is a combination of everything this book mentioned, but the following is the foundation of it: “When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process. The reason for this is not hard to understand. When you focus your mind on the present moment, on the process of what you are doing right now, you are always where you want to be and where you should be. All your energy goes into what you are doing. However, when you focus your mind on where you want to end up, you are never where you are, and you exhaust your energy with unrelated thoughts instead of putting it into what you are doing.”
  • Relevant reading: check out my book review of Mindset: the New Psychology of Success.

2. Be like a flower – you are perfect at the present moment.

Think about a flower, at what point does it reach perfection? From seed to full bloom to its humble ending of returning to the soil, when is a flower perfect? If you say it’s perfect every single moment, why lots of us don’t say the same thing about ourselves?

Our society has become highly end product-driven: since we were kids in elementary schools, we were judged by the end products, such as grades, trophies, etc. It’s perfectly fine to achieve, but lots of times, the achievement-driven mindset deprives us of true happiness and lasting fulfillment.

“When you develop a present-minded approach to every activity you are involved in and, like the flower, realize that at whatever level you are performing, you are perfect that point in time, you experience a tremendous relief from the fictitious, self-imposed pressures and expectations that only slow your progress.”

3. Execution of repetition without emotion.

Let’s face it: developing new skills requires repetition – we all know this, but to get the most of this process, we need to be intentional and “remove emotion.”

  • “What is required is that you are aware of what you want to achieve, that you know the motions you must intentionally repeat to accomplish the goal, and that you execute your actions without emotions or judgments; just stay on course. You should do this in the comfort of knowing that intentionally repeating something over a short course of time will create a new habit or replace an old one.”
  • “When, instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.”


4. The Four “S” & Do-Observe-Correct (DOC)

  • To make staying in the practicing mind as easy as possible, there are four techniques the author recommended – the Four “S”
    • Simplify: simplify the project/activity by breaking it down into its components. For example, when practicing golf, work on only one aspect of the golf swing at a time.
    • Small: use sub-goals to reach a big goal. For example, divide a marathon into sections, and focus on finishing one section at a time.
    • Short: focus on the on the project for a short period at time. This reminds of the Pomodoro time management technique and The Talent Code that discussed why the best performers love to take breaks and even naps in between their practice sessions.
    • Slow: slowing down can actually speed you up – sounds paradoxical, but working at a slower pace allows you to be more aware of what you’re doing. The author found himself capable of completing piano restoration at a shorter time than before when he slows down his physical movements.

“The most productive way to perform the task is something like this: You pick up a tennis ball, look at the trash can, and toss the first ball.  If the ball hits the floor in front of the can, you observe this and make the decision to adjust the arc of the ball and how hard you will toss the next ball based on this observed information.  You continue this process with each toss, allowing present-moment feedback to help you refine the art of tossing a tennis ball into a trash can.

Where we fall down in this activity is when we drop out of this present-minded approach and become attached to the outcome of our attempts.  Then we start the emotional judgment cycle: “How could I have missed the first one? I am not very good at this.  Now the best I can do is two out of three,” and on and on.  If we stay in the process, this does not occur. We look at the outcome of each attempt with emotional indifference.  We accept it as it is, with no judgment involved.”The Do-Observe-Correct (DOC) process helps you to focus all your energy on the process of improving. Judgments or emotions (“Oh, that’s a bad move!” “Oh no, I can’t believe I missed that shot!” …) “hinder you from thinking clearly” and waste your energy on something not helping you to make progress. This process reminds of the “Feedback Loop” emphasized heavily in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries: Build-Measure-Learn. The author used trowing tennis ball into a trash can as an example to illustrate this DOC process:

Time to act – how this book can help you grow!

Develop a habit of practicing mind:

1. Keep yourself process-oriented.
2. Stay in the present.
3. Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer your efforts. (Do-Observe-Correct)
4. Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention.

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