The Practicing Mind: A book review by Bob Morris

The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life
Thomas M. Sterner
New World Library (2012)

How and why “focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of [merely] having a goal…is magical and incredibly empowering”

For almost three decades, K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have been conducting research on peak performance and the results clearly indicate that “deliberate practice” under expert supervision is far more important to success (however defined) than are talent and luck, although they have significance. This is precisely what Thomas Sterner has in mind when asserting that those who master the new skill to which the title of this review refers will possess “such qualities as self-discipline, focus, patience, and self awareness.” Moreover, he adds that these “all-important virtues are interwoven threads in the fabric of true inner peace and contentment in life.”

I agree with Sterner (who agrees with Ericsson) that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of practice. “Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions.” Recall the reference to “deliberate practice,” also called “deep practice.” On average, peak performance in the creative and performing arts as well as in chess and competitive sports requires at least 10,000 hours of such practice (albeit difficult, repetitious, and boring pracice) under strict, expert supervision. Does that substantial commitment of time and energy guarantee success? No, but superior performance cannot be achieved without it.

As Sterner explains, he eventually became “immersed” – in his mid-30s — in practice after intensely disliking it for years and even abandoning it altogether. What he learned about music growing up “laid the foundation” that would later help him to understand both the mental and struggles in which he found himself when searching for answers. Whatever the nature of the activity (e.g. playing golf or a guitar or both), Sterner realized that various failures stemmed from a lack of understanding of “proper mechanics of practicing” as well as the mindset required to complete a process of goal setting and then do whatever must be done to achieve it. “Perhaps most important, I realized that I had learned how to accomplish just that without the frustration and anxiety usually associated with such an activity.” That in essence is the core insight that was finally revealed to him.

Here are three of Sterner’s the key points, supplemented by my parenthetical annotations:

1. The mind (what the brain is and does) can be expanded in two primary ways: by constant nourishment (e.g. meditation, knowledge, sensory experience) and by constant practice (i.e. increasing mastery of various skills).

2. Personal development and improvement requires a focused and disciplined approach to what is most important, especially when encountering setbacks, ambiguity, and fatigue.

3. Initiatives should be guided and informed by these four “S” words: simplify (“Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler,” Albert Einstein); small); short (the best way to eat a whale is one bite at a time), short (“baby steps” in the right direction rather than giant leaps in the wrong direction); and slow (establish an energy-efficient and awareness-expanding pace).

Development of the “practicing mind” is a never-ending process, best viewed as a journey, rather than as an ultimate destination. I agree with Thomas Sterner that none of the “truths” that he has examined are new. “They are just the eternal lessons that we have learned and relearned over the centuries from those who have questioned and found peace in the answers. This is where the fun begins.”

I envy those who have not as yet read this book and will soon do so, preparing for what I hope proves to the most enjoyable journey of personal discovery that they will ever experience. Bon voyage!

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