Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Key 1: INSTRUCTION

Key 1: INSTRUCTION

Instruction comes in many forms. For mastering most skills, there's nothing better than being in the hands of a master teacher, either one-to-one or in a small group. But there are also books, films, tapes, computer learning programs, computerized simulators, group instruction, the classroom, knowledgeable friends, counselors, business associates, even "the street." Still, the individual teacher or coach can serve as a standard for all forms of instruction, the first and brightest beacon.

Key 2: PRACTICE

Key 2: PRACTICE

Here's an old joke that appears in many versions but always sends the same message. A couple on their way to a concert are lost in New York's Lower East Side. They stop to question a bearded elder.

"Excuse us, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?" they ask.
"Practice!" he tells them.

For one who is on the master's journey, however, the word is best conceived of as a noun, not as something you do, but as something you have, something you are. In this sense, the word is akin to the Chinese word tao and the Japanese word do, both of which mean, literally, road or path. Practice is the path upon which you travel, just that. A practice (as a noun) can be anything you practice on a regular basis as an integral part of your life--not in order to gain something else, but for its own sake. It might be a sport or a martial art. It might be gardening or bridge or yoga or meditation or community service.

Key 3: SURRENDER

Key 3: SURRENDER

The early stages of any significant new learning invoke the spirit of the fool. It's almost inevitable that you'll feel clumsy, that you'll take literal or figurative pratfalls. There's no way around it. The beginner who stands on his or her dignity becomes rigid, armored; the learning can't get through. This doesn't mean that you should surrender your own physical and moral center or passively accept teachings that would be bad for you. But you must trust your instructor to some degree, and now's the time for a certain suspension of disbelief. So your teacher asks you to begin by putting your finger on your nose and standing on one foot. Unless there's some compelling reason to contrary, just give it a try. Don't fight the process; surrender.

Key 4: INTENTIONALITY

Key 4: INTENTIONALITY

It joins old words with new -- character, willpower, attitude, imaging, the mental game -- but what I'm calling intentionality, however you look at it, is an essential to take along on the master's journey. The power of the mental game came to public awareness in the 1970s through the revelations of some of the nation's most notable sports figures. Golfer Jack Nicklaus, for example, let it be known that he never hit a shot without first clearly visualizing the ball's perfect flight and its triumphant destination, "sitting up there high and white and pretty on the green." A successful shot, Nicklaus told us, was 50 percent visualization, 40 percent setup, and only 10 percent swing.

Key 5: THE EDGE

Key 5: THE EDGE

Now we come, as come we must in anything of real consequence, to a seeming contradiction, a paradox. Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. They are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small, incremental step. At the same time--and here's the paradox--these people, these masters, are precisely the ones who are likely to challenge previous limits, to take risks for the sake of higher performance, and even to become obsessive at times in that pursuit. Clearly, for them the key is not either/or, it's both/and.

Playing the edge is a balancing act. it demands the awareness to know when you're pushing yourself beyond safe limits. In this awareness, the man or woman on the path of mastery sometimes makes a conscious decision to do just that. We see this clearly in running, a sport so pure, so explicit that everything is likely to come quickly into full view. Running fast and hard almost always demands playing the edge, and it can't be denied that runners and would-be runners should be offered safe and sensible programs and warned against the dangers and pitfalls of their practice.

But before you can even consider playing this edge, there must be much instruction, practice, surrender, and intentionality.