We become what we practice.
And it cuts both ways. If you practice surly impatience, that will define you. Practice smiling compassion and you will be known for it.
It's normal to think of practice being something we do in order to get better at dancing or gardening. Or, as a noun, it's what lawyers and doctors run.
Practice largely happens in the background, because it's what we repeat, and we often repeat things by default. Surly impatience, for example. Or gorging on heavily salted snacks.
We can, of course, not merely default into surliness and gorging. We can direct our practicing. Rather than just become a surly gorger, we can practice what we want to become.
This is what excites me. As we get older, with more time on our hands, we can practice being the person we've always wanted to be in the hope of becoming what we practice.
Starting Up the Second Mountain
David Brooks, the clear-headed New York Times columnist, has been writing lately about "the second mountain," which is also the title of his most recent book.
His message resonates with me because of my age and stage. It's about entering another phase of life.
The first mountain, he says, is the striving climb of the building years. Early in adulthood and into our middle years, we define ourselves, try to gain success, perhaps raise a family, and generally focus on acquisition.
The second mountain — which often follows time spent in a late-middle-aged valley of disappointment, loss, or arduous search for greater meaning — is the opportunity for a less inward, more outward next phase, a time to build a moral underpinning that involves more giving, less taking, less individualism, more communal contributing, more commitment to things outside of ourselves (which is said to often result in true joy vs. mere happiness).
What gets lots of practice on the first mountain are parts of our character suited to competing and getting ahead, often under stress. Not everyone, mind you, but many of us practice aggression, pushing bullishly through duress, cold decisiveness for the sake of expediency, callous disregard, a surfeit of taking things for ourselves, egoism of many varieties (boasting, for example, or name dropping), over-talking or talking over others, one-upmanship, down-looking at those less fortunate, self-indulgent anger, prickly and gratuitous irritability, schadenfreude (taking pleasure from someone else's misfortune), sanctimony, greed, willful ignorance, inaction in the face of need... the list is like Jack's beanstalk.
And, I repeat, these traits are certainly not exhibited by everyone. Saints walk among us at all ages and in all stages of life. And we are all, by degree, saintly or nasty.
Constructively Falling Out of Practice
The great opportunity when our careers wind down, once those less-likable character traits can begin to fall out of practice (thank goodness), is to ready ourselves for the remainder of our lives by practicing the antidotes. To soften from hardness. To repent from egoism in favor of humility and a wider view of things. To take less and give more. To connect more and erect fewer walls. To aim higher. To become swell (which implies so much in a single word).
We can practice swellness through its component parts: kindness, empathy, generosity, goodwill, good cheer, humor, patience, tolerance, self-love that emanates outward, and other virtues we admire in likable people.
The Eulogy Virtues
In The Moral Bucket List, David Brooks' second-most-recent book, he divided virtues in two camps the way he divided mountains:
"It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?"
Those are the practices I'm thinking about for you and me. Eulogy virtues.
And we have to begin soon. All this takes time. James Clear, the blogger and author, recently said this on Twitter:
Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. You get what you repeat.
Our virtues are a lagging measure of our virtuous practice.
The Wildly Important Stuff
In a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled "You Need to Practice Being Your Future Self," Peter Bregman pointed out that while living in the moment is important, living in the future, or at least contributing to it, is just as important if you are practicing what Bregman calls, "the wildly important stuff" you'll need later on.
He was talking to business people. I'm talking to retired people. The advice is the same.
A personal story. It's about golf. Don't click away. Think of golf as a metaphor. Or ignore the golf and think of my personal transformation. I'm in the middle of it. Something mildly amazing happened this week.
I've been playing golf with greater seriousness for the past four years. With it has come highs (good shots and scores) and lows (bad shots and scores). It dawned on me recently that the mood-depressing lows outnumber the mood-lifting highs, and as much as I love walking the courses with friends, I can no longer tolerate the emotional roller coaster.
So I got off.
During my last three rounds of golf, I've stopped keeping score.
Non-golfers will wonder why that's a big deal. Golfers will gasp.
The score, for golfers, is as much a part of the game as the ball, club, and hole. If you don't keep score, what's the point? Where's the fun?
So far, there's more fun.
My practice now is what I'm calling "genteel golf." I step up to the ball and, rather than trying to hit with all my might, I hit deliberately and rhythmically and lightly (and thus straighter). I approach each shot in isolation as a chance to practice the crazy difficult Rube Goldberg machine known as a golf swing — with the intensity turned off.
I honestly don't care if it's a bad shot. (Note: that's not 100% true yet.) I tell myself that there's another lightly considered, gingerly hit, not-to-be-worried-about shot waiting with a friendly face just a little further up the course. It might be a good shot. Or not. Ommmmm.
Silly? Not for me. It's a revelation. The joys of nature on these beautiful parklands called golf courses are finding their way into my soul more readily, perhaps even becoming the reason to be there. My blood pressure is probably lower. I might even be smiling.
With genteel golf, I'm actually practicing several things at the same time: self-discipline, resistance to unreasonable demands (placed on my self by myself), and hold-loosening, a big priority for me these days on the hike toward enhanced personhood in retirement.
Loosening the Grip
One of the great challenges of golf — and life — is loosening one's grip. Holding the club lightly is a skill that normally defies teeth-clenchers like me. Our murderous determination overrides our good sense.
So now, I'm loosening my emotional grip — on competing with myself, and on the long-calcified drive to perform.
The rational me chuckles. Yet the deeply set competitive me persists like some sort of flesh-eating worm in its desire to hammer the ball a mile.
There's also the swagger beast to put down. Three years ago, I hit a golf ball more than 300 yards. My wife was witness. My GPS device calibrated the distance. It was 312 yards to be precise. I didn't literally swagger down the fairway afterward, but I was swaggering big time in my swollen head. Swagger is a drug. In its absence, some of us crave it. It's an temporary antidote to aging. It's largely a male thing. And ridiculous. And because I will never again hit a golf ball 300 yards, the fantasy of doing so is madness. Being disappointed when I don't hit it anywhere near that distance, is even deeper madness.
I almost regret that glorious shot. The injection of swagger was ultimately debilitating.
Of course, this is really about others things. Like aging and its effect on performance of all kinds. And what we do with that. By turning away from the 300-yard measuring stick toward other measures — how lightly, how straight, how graceful, how calm, cool, and collected — I'm trying to choose sane balance over crazy futility.
And it's not easy. Crazy futility is an old friend. Sane balance is a coy acquaintance.
So that symbolic golf ball at the top of the page? It's actually a teacher as well as a metaphor. It says, "You know what I incite in you. What are you going to do with it this time? What are you going to practice?"
One Last Thought, About Learning to Play
That last line would have been a perfect place to end this piece: "What are you going to practice?" That was my intent. (If you've arrived here with me, my eternal thanks.)
But I just read the soul-searching admission of a repentant workaholic named Karen Rinaldi in the New York Times, entitled "Work Is Like Water." If you can get behind the NYT paywall, I think you'll like what she says.
Rinaldi reminded me that work, when you are a serious careerist or a person driven by accumulating money (I raised both my hands), can leak so completely into all corners of life, like water, that there is often very little room left for play, which nourishes the soul.
If you are not playful, or if a stressful work life subverted your playfulness for several decades and you've fallen out of practice, play itself must be practiced.
The excerpt below from Rinaldi's article, convinced me that what I'm transitioning from in golf — what I'm actually practicing — is the play of golf. Playing golf rather than working at it.
Work can be something we enjoy. At best, it’s where we shine and excel and prove our worth. It’s something we seek to master. Play is different. It’s the release from having to master it that makes it play. But play can be hard because it means giving up being the master — or at least the illusion of it. That can be uncomfortable, and for some of us, frustrating and excruciating.
But when we play for playing’s sake, there is no directive or goal. Transcending our usefulness is the valiant and defiant protest against the demands of our results-focused lives. It not only provides a necessary respite but also serves as practice for the stuff that really matters, like being a more balanced human being. Too often, I’m ashamed to admit, that’s something I am not very good at.
The 18th-century poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller warned against being driven purely by work in his “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” He wrote, “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”
Doesn't that final quotation give you some sense of relief? Disconnect the drive. Engage the play. Give up being the master. Go full human.