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‘Deliberate and focused’ practice makes perfect

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Today’s gospel from Luke 16: 10-13 is part of an entire passage, verses 1 to 13, which is the long form of the prescribed Gospel. The first part is about the sly and shrewd man who did something “bad” and yet was used as a good example by Christ. The opening of the short form of the Gospel says: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.”

This is not an easy passage to understand if we take it in its entirety. Yet the lesson in today’s Gospel is clear, it is how well we do in the little things that will prove our trustworthiness in great things.

 

Peak performance

There are two books that are worth reading: Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Matthew Syed’s “Bounce.” The two books discuss how excellence or peak performance across fields or tasks is very much influenced by the opportunity to practice.

They talk about the 10,000-hour rule: those who excel in a field have had at least 10,000 hours of practice or actual competition or work before they reach peak performance. This is true for sports, music, chess and other pursuits, be they intellectual, technical or artistic.

In the book, “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, he says not just any type of practice will do; it has to be deliberate practice that is focused, with a goal and with feedback or evaluation.

These theories are clearly the same lesson that Christ conveys in today’s Gospel. If we are reliable in the small matters—the day-in, day-out grind of practice when no one is watching, doing the small things and doing them right with consistent effort—we will excel in great things.

One of the star players we had in the Ateneo de Manila High School basketball team was a very flashy and brilliant player. During his time, he was the most sought after rookie as his batch entered collegiate basketball.

What few people knew was that behind every move that wowed and electrified the stands, he would spend hours of practice on his village court and on the school court before and after team practice.

There is a study in the US that shows that the best high schools in the US, those that have a high success rate of students entering good colleges, generally have very good sports and arts programs. I always believed and continue to believe in this as an educator.

In sports, for example, there are basic values to be learned. One, you need to practice day-in, day-out to be able to compete. Two, come competition time, you have to play by the rules or you don’t play at all.

Life paths

Around a decade and an half after I started teaching, several of my former students would ask me for advice or discuss their careers and life paths. They were in their early 30s by then and were rising in their respective fields.

The achievers would always ask what more they could do to excel. I would tell them that when they reach a certain level of excellence and achievement in any career they should remember two things. One, you assume that when you are in room with your colleagues, the person next to you is as good as you are, if not better. Two, what will help you be at the top of your game is one simple rule: Do your homework.

This is what we often overlook. Somehow many of us have the tendency to wing it, so to speak, rely on stock knowledge and just do again and again what worked before. We often hear, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Doing one’s homework gives us the discipline to prepare and prepare with respect; to challenge ourselves to be better than our yesterday’s best.

The discipline of doing one’s homework, develops a sense of mindfulness, as some would term it, or thoughtfulness. This is similar to what “The Talent Code” terms as deliberate practice.

Homework is practice, deliberate, thoughtful practice for a task at hand and a goal to meet. The thoughtfulness leads to another virtue, the respect for the truth, to what is around us and the context we are in. Again, you don’t simply wing it as if there is no antecedent.

Humbling realization

One of the most humbling realizations in pursuing a graduate degree is seeing the vast ocean of knowledge and brilliance in one’s field that one has to work with and work on to come up with one’s thesis or dissertation. The challenge is to add to the conversation.

In our Juniorate year, the second stage in Jesuit seminary formation, we spent an entire year sharpening our communications skills in both English and Filipino. We did a lot of writing and reading using the classics as our models.

Our teacher in English was the late, great Fr. Jim Donelan, SJ, an Oxford Don and the last American Rector and President of the Ateneo de Manila University. He was a brilliant teacher, writer, speaker, Renaissance man and Jesuit.

His pedagogical secret in making us learn how to write or communicate was premised on two simple principles. One, to learn how to write one must keep on writing. Two, to learn how to write well is best done through imitation, but not just any kind of imitation.

He made us read the great texts, the classics, the Greek and Latin orations and epics translated into English, Shakespeare, De la Costa and many other great works. We would read and analyze these works and the final exercise was to imitate.

He used to tell us, learn from the masters if you want to be a master. All great artists, he would say, started with imitating the greats before them and then shone with their own brilliance.

We are often awed by brilliance and rightly so. We must aspire for a culture and tradition of excellence. We must, though, learn to pay our dues.

The price of brilliance is deliberate practice, thoughtfulness—doing the small things in the day to day; and be ready to be great when the time comes.

As one of my fellow priests would say, Christ did not wake up one morning and say, “Okay, it’s time!” then walks to his passion and Cross. From the time his mission became clear he paid his dues.

He paid his dues in struggling to understand better his identity and mission as “the beloved son,” by not being accepted in his “own native place,” by being misunderstood by both friends and foes and yet refusing to give in to the temptation to water down his mission.

Then on the Cross his “deliberate practice” shines forth, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

It was a life time of “deliberate practice” that gave us the possibility of eternal life.


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