Practice makes perfect

After I wrote Friday’s post about the magic number, I really did crack open the French book. I did a few grammar exercises over lunch, and I did a few more last night in an exhausted stupor before I went to bed. On my bike ride yesterday, I passed the time calling out verb conjugations and simple sentences along deserted country roads. I even reviewed the crazy French number system until I could recite my parents’ and my addresses with ease. I didn’t put in 10,000 hours, but I can already feel my comfort level starting to improve.

As I wrote down the answers to the grammar exercises, I would figure out the pattern by about the third one each time. As soon as I realized I had cracked the code, I’d be ready to move on to the next set.

Fortunately, I resisted the urge.

Even as much as I wanted to move on, somewhere down deep I knew I had to finish each set of exercises completely, repetitiveness notwithstanding. In fact, it was that very repetitiveness that I needed. I realized that simply learning the rule wasn’t enough; I needed to practice it over and over in order to drive it home. It’s the practice that makes it second nature. People don’t think about grammar rules and conjugations when they speak; they just do it.

So I’d like to add a caveat to the 10,000 [or pick your own number] hour rule. Your 10,000 hours have to be focused and meaningful. Those hours need to follow a plan, and a plan means practice. Make sure your 10,000 include taking the time to get it right, not just learning the rules but absorbing them, internalizing them. Use your 10,000 hours to practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect.

The magic number

Awhile back, I read an article about a man who decided to become a professional golfer. He quit his job and went all out to achieve his goal. While that sounds admirable, a story like that isn’t completely without precedent. Just another feel-good human interest story, right?


Digging a little deeper, I learned that this man had no golf experience whatsoever. He wasn’t even particularly interested in the sport. Nowhere along the line had he displayed any sort of extraordinary talent for it. His foray into professional golfing was all about testing a theory. Whoa–now that’s different.

This man had read somewhere that 10,000 hours of dedication can make a person good at anything, and now he wants to see if that’s true. While he chips away at the requisite time frame–his plan covers 6 hours per day, 6 days a week, for 6 years–I’m pondering the implications.

To what would I want to dedicate 10,000 hours? Where would I want to focus? Can I leverage that time against my talents? How much further could I get if I devoted those hours to an area where I actually have some natural ability? Could I go from good to great? What about 5,000 extra hours? 1,000 extra hours? Is there really a magic number, or will any extra time help? What can I learn from this?

This experiment notwithstanding, I should ask myself questions like that all the time. I should know where my talents lie and then search for ways to develop those talents. And then I need to put time into them.

Time and dedication. I think those are the key elements to this man’s experiment. What that means is that becoming really good at something takes a lot of hard work. 10,000 hours? Maybe, but why count? A few extra minutes every day still move me further ahead; every bit adds up.

I guess that means I need to crack open my French book.

Apostrophe fouls

(Taken by Gunnar Freyr Steinsson, January 21st 2006.)Just because you see an s doesn’t mean you should stick an apostrophe in front of it.

I don’t know what’s going on, but in the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more people using apostrophes when they want to make a word plural. How this fairly simple punctuation convention has gotten so screwed up is beyond me, but I am bound and determined to make things right again. Beside the fact that I’m just a nut for this kind of stuff, I really, truly believe that making mistakes in the written word undermines a person’s credibility, at least a little bit. It indicates that the writer either doesn’t know or doesn’t care–neither of which is positive.

Here are real examples of apostrophe fouls I’ve seen in communication over the last couple of days:

  • …neither of my sister’s made it…
  • …we will have three day’s together…

This kind of thing drives me crazy; I think it’s time to review the rules. Use an apostrophe to…

  1. show possession, that is, when someone owns something; or
  2. indicate missing letters in a contraction (e.g. don’t = do not).

There are all sorts of ways to indicate a plural–more than one of something–but using an apostrophe generally isn’t one of them. I don’t care if everyone is doing it; if it’s not right, it’s wrong. Words matter.

P.S. If you’re interested, check out these and other punctuation gaffes at the National Punctuation Day photo gallery. Also, here’s an article (one of many) about two guys who went on a crusade with their Sharpies to eradicate errors in signs around the country. I love that this article calls them grammar vigilantes. At least I know there’s someone out there who is as nutty as I am.

Pleased to meet you

Introductions can be awkward. It seems that people often don’t know how to do them anymore, or they’re afraid to mess them up so they don’t even start. There’s always a moment where people stare at each other briefly in embarrassment, no one bold enough to take charge of the situation. This doesn’t just happen in social settings or at middle school dances. I see it happen at meetings and in professional situations all the time, creating a vacuum that sucks the air out of the room. What a pity.

The solution is actually simple: don’t wait to be introduced. Take the onus off everyone else and simply introduce yourself. When you walk into a situation with “unknowns,” just extend your hand and say, “Hi. I’m Tammy Davis.” Do it immediately; don’t stand off to the side and size up the situation first, or the inertia will hold you there. This simple action dispels everyone’s awkwardness, and introducing yourself spurs others to do the same. Voila! No need to wrestle with the protocol of deciding who should introduce whom. Even if you think you’ve met the person before, do it anyway. You can even add, “Hi! I’m Tammy Davis. I think we may have already met.” Now the person, who probably vaguely recognizes you too, can stop trying to recall your name from the recesses of his memory. Better yet, now he’ll tell you his name so you can do the same.

Most people agree that a first impression isn’t soon forgotten. Make sure people remember you as the person who started the conversation, not the person who was afraid to join it.

Let me give you my card

Every day I am reminded in one way or another how much the little things count–even how someone handles a business card. This may seem a bit esoteric, but bear with me. It’s the kind of thing that people rarely notice when it’s handled well, but that can really stand out when handled poorly.

When I introduce myself to someone professionally, I usually hand him a business card. Until recently, I didn’t realize that I have a specific way of handing my card to someone. I turn it around so the other person can read it, and I hold it so that my fingers are not covering any of the information. In a broad sense, I am presenting a piece of myself to this person, and my careful handling indicates mutual respect.

It makes sense, then, that what someone does with a business card after he receives it is equally important. I expect the person who takes my card to at least read it (i.e. give it its due) before he puts it away. Where he puts it has meaning, too. Sliding the card into a wallet, briefcase, folder, or even a breast pocket is infinitely better than shoving the card into a pants pocket–especially the back one–only to be rediscovered at dry cleaning time. Even if my card is thrown away later, disregarding my portable credentials right in front of me leaves me feeling kicked to the curb.

Think of it like this. If your third-cousin-whom-you-barely-know gives you (and everyone else) a school picture of her kid at a family reunion, you wouldn’t cram it into your pocket or leave it lying on the picnic table, no matter what you intended to do with it later. You’d look at it, make polite noises, and carefully put it away. You might stuff it in a desk drawer or even throw it away when you get home, but never in front of your third-cousin-whom-you-barely-know. It just wouldn’t be polite. Isn’t a business card the same thing?


Bonus tip for handling business cards at meetings: When I receive multiple business cards at the start of a meeting, I lay them out in front of me at the table. Besides being a respectful way to handle the cards, it helps me keep newly-introduced people’s names straight.

What’s cooking?

I love to cook and I love words, so it makes sense that one day I would find the intersection of my two passions. Today, my friends, is that day.

Out of the blue, it struck me that nowhere is the power of words–syntax, structure, language–more fundamentally apparent than in cooking. Think about it. If I misinterpret a recipe, I could get some pretty unexpected results. Ambiguity in recipe-writing can be disastrous. In addition, not only does the recipe need to be clearly communicated, but the cook also has to have at least a basic understanding of “kitchen language.” Until my kids started to cook, I naively assumed anyone could read and follow a recipe right out of the gate. I had to take off my colored glasses to realize that terms like “double boiler” and “chiffonade” and even “broil” don’t come standard with everyone’s mental inventory of vocabulary.

As with any language, the beauty of a recipe is that when I have mastered it, I can start playing with it. I can tweak measurements and cooking times to soften the flavor or change the consistency. I can add herbs and spices to punctuate the taste. I can make subtle changes here and there to alter the character of the result. I can even leave something out and watch it fall flat.

I’ve lost track of whether I’m discussing language or cooking. Measurements, adjectives, ingredients, adverbs, temperature, punctuation, spices, words, herbs, syntax, flavor, order, vocabulary. Combine all ingredients and mix well.

Back in the game

I think I’ve found the answer. No, not to life, the universe, and everything. My nephew tells me that’s 42. I’m talking about the answer to my running slump–and maybe more.

Awhile ago, I wrote about my struggle with my running routine, how it had become a mindless habit and how I wanted to get the joy back. When I wrote that, I said that if the old reasons for running weren’t working for me, I needed to find new ones. Well, I have.

First, let me tell you that I never stopped running, though I did back off the miles a bit. I gutted through the slump (thanks, Ang), trusting that somewhere along the way I’d find what I needed. Then, a friend’s mother-in-law serendipitously gave me a few of her old running magazines (thanks, Linda). Reading others’ stories sparked my excitement. The more I immersed myself in the articles and features, the more I wanted to lace up my shoes and GO. I knew this feeling was critical, so for a few weeks, I devoured every running mag I could find, front to back to front again. I also bought my own subscription (thanks, Lauren).

Then summer arrived with daunting gusto. When the thermometer showed 90 degrees at eight o’clock at night, my burgeoning-but-still-fragile motivation shuddered. Besides feeling miserable, running in the heat can be downright unhealthy. Coincidentally, the current edition of Runner’s World features an article about running in extreme heat–how to overcome it and knowing when to stop. That was just what I needed.

To counteract the heat, I’ve traded speed for distance–and I’m in love again. I get such a high from feeling as if I could run forever, enough that I don’t feel too guilty about the minute per mile I’ve given up for the time being. Although my competitive self struggled with letting go of my all-out approach, my rational self knew I needed to do it for self-preservation. For once, the rational self won. The first time I did it, I knew I had made the right choice. I’m back in the game.

Looking back, I realize there are some important lessons in my prodigal (mental) return to running, lessons I can apply in a broader context.

  1. Gut it out through the rough patches.
  2. Find a community for support.
  3. Do it a different way.
  4. Get it done.

Sharing this struggle helped, too. The transparency kept me accountable, and it opened the door for others to help. Who knew?

Why wait?

If you want to be useful, you can always start now. –from Anything You Want, by Derek Sivers

I love this line. In his book, Derek Sivers directs it to those who are waiting for some big event to launch a dream: money, a headline name, whatever. Sivers does a great job of giving examples to explain this concept, but I’m going to make it personal in my interpretation.

My heretofore secret dream is to write a book, and through that, to become a respected author. The problem is that I don’t have a topic or a story line. I don’t even know what genre to tackle. I don’t know whether it should be fiction or non-fiction. For a long time, I carried my dream like a burden, waiting for inspiration so that I could suddenly lighten the load. I let that keep me away from my keyboard and didn’t write a thing.

One day, however, I realized that I simply love to communicate through the written word. I love to craft sentences that transcend the letters on the page and become vivid images on a reader’s mental canvas. And I do have ideas–maybe not ideas that are big enough to carry a book, but certainly ideas that could carry an essay or two. So I started writing them down. Then I started sharing what I wrote. 

Now I write something almost every day, and I’ve already reaped rewards from the words I’ve sown. First, the mere discipline of the activity has helped me improve my writing each time I pick up my pen or sit down at the keyboard. Second, holding my ideas up to the light of my computer screen and wrestling with the descriptors and explanations that surround them often reveal their tiny sparkles and illuminate their imperfections. I’ve had to set aside many ideas that weren’t as strong as I thought because I couldn’t find the words to support them. Others that initially seemed insignificant sped forward on their own, magnetically attracting words like iron filings. Finally, I’ve found an outlet for my writing and I’ve found a venue in which to share it (right here, if you haven’t noticed). I’m getting closer to my dream every day.

Have I written a book? No. Do I still hope to? Sure. So what has changed? I think the difference is that now I’m on the path to getting there. The way I see it, too many people focus on the destination and forget to get on the road. The last time I checked, we hadn’t yet advanced to teleportation; no one is going to beam me up. Most of us still have to get where we’re going the hard way.

I think that Derek’s point is that making the realization of a dream dependent on a Big Event leaves most dreams untouched and unrealized. Grow your idea by proving it out. If you can prove your value in a very real way, even on a small scale, the rest will come.

Room to fail

Last weekend when I was riding my bike, I took a break to call  and check on my kids. My 10-year-old daughter was impatient for me to come home, as I had promised to help her make a pie for a 4th of July event. When I told her I had over an hour left on the bike, my resourceful child begged me to let her attempt the pie by herself. Naturally, my immediate response was no, only to be met with, “But I’ve done it tons of times with you, Mom. I can do it. Pleeeeeease?”

I flashed back to my 10-year-old self, making meals for the family and baking on my own. Maybe a solo attempt to bake a pie wasn’t such a bad idea for my daughter. The worst that could happen was that I would have to clean up a big kitchen mess. “Okay,” I said. “Just have your brother help you with the oven.”

When I returned home, I found a beautifully baked crust, no filling, a clean kitchen, and a sad little girl. She had wanted to make a cream filling, but it didn’t turn out right so she dumped it down the sink. She was cleaning up the dishes when I walked into the house after my ride. There was no mess, but no pie either.

Before my heart had even finished breaking for my daughter, I pulled out a fresh set of ingredients and told her to find a clean pan. We set about making a new filling–she measuring and mixing, and I overseeing and guiding. Throughout the process, she told me what we did differently this time and she was able to recognize where she had made mistakes in round one. Soon enough, we had a luscious coconut cream pie with a mile-high meringue on top. I have one plucky little girl.

Did I want my daughter’s solo attempt to end unsuccessfully? No way, but in hindsight I realize that by giving her room to fail, both of us learned so much more than if I had hovered over her from the start. She gained the confidence to try–and try again. She learned that she could stumble and still recover. She learned not only to make a good product, but also where the pitfalls lie so she can avoid them the next time. Most of all, we both learned that failure doesn’t mean the end of the world.

Letting go taught my daughter far more than she’d ever learn from following my directions. Maybe the best way to help someone grow is simply to give her room to fail.

What’s your measuring stick?

Several years ago, local grocery stores started a coupon feeding frenzy, offering triple face value for manufacturers’ coupons. People flocked to stores to take advantage of the savings. Budgets aside, they bought hundreds of dollars worth of groceries and sundry items because of the great deals they were getting. Look how much they saved!

Every week, I panic on the day of my French class. As the hour approaches, I realize that despite my good intentions, I’m lucky if I’ve cracked the book even once. When I get to class, however, I relax. I can keep up with the oral exercises that we practice, so I start to feel better. I can “do” class, and I’ve made decent progress since I started. Look how far I’ve come!

Cases like this–and I could name many more–happen all too often. We judge ourselves by how far we’ve come rather than where we need to be. Does it matter how much I’ve “saved” if I run over my budget? Does it matter whether I can improvise my way through grammar lessons if I can’t speak the language? Does it matter if I’ve done twenty really cool things at work if I haven’t completed the one strategic project that my boss needs?

Of course, there are really good reasons to measure progress, and even to celebrate milestones along the way. Ultimately, however, we can’t let progress become the goal. Think about it. If you had three days to drive from Chicago to LA but only made it to Denver in that time, you wouldn’t tell the person waiting at the other end, But look how far I’ve come! I covered a lot of miles! If that’s the case, you’re measuring the wrong thing.

The job is not done until you reach your destination, hit your budget, speak the language, or finish the project. I guess I’d better crack that French book.