Insomniac Thoughts On Hard Work and Practice, and Some Goals

I’ve been struck, unfortuitously, with a bout of insomnia tonight, which I have been fortunate not to have had in quite some time. Before moving to NYC and plunged headfirst into a whirlwind of frenetic work and survival, I used to get insomnia a fair amount. I tended to utilize such times for writing. Which may be one reason, come to think of it, why I no longer write as frequently as I once did as a West Coast whippersnapper. During college, I wrote sometimes multiple short pieces a day. Now, many moons later, it’s more like once a month.

While I can’t really help that my cognitive and emotional space is spent on other also fairly important things, like teaching kids, I do miss delving into this personal creative space, just as I miss other creative or emotional outlets I used to devote some time to, such as playing my hand drums or hiking/running up the sides of mountains. And I know that every day that I no longer do these things, I am slowly losing the chops that I once had.

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers at the moment, and his argument about success as attributable mainly to extensive practice, as opposed to talent, made a lot of sense to me. I remember my cross country coach in high school (a terrible math teacher, but an excellent running coach) telling us that after two days of rest we would begin losing a certain percentage of our fitness. And I remember reading an interview with John McLaughlin–one of my favorite musicians and world renowned for his lightning fast licks on the guitar–in which he stated that he could tell that he was losing his skills after only two days without practice.

While at a conference recently in Seattle, during a roundtable discussion with other educators about “hybrid” roles for teachers, one teacher who was currently in that role (1/2 time in the classroom, 1/2 time doing policy related work) commented on how during time spent away from the classroom, such as the 2 days we had spent at this conference, he felt his connection to classroom practice slipping away.

I don’t know if 2 days is some magic number, but the big idea here is that without nearly daily practice in something, we begin to lose the skills and capabilities (one could even call it a type of ‘muscle memory‘) we had worked so hard to build. Furthermore, I’m reflecting on the notion that mastery is not some peak that one reaches and plants a flag in and retains from there on out for the rest of one’s life. Mastery has to be built through a lot of hard work and practice (Gladwell says roughly 10,000 hours), and then sustained.

Though I do think that there are certain tracks and pathways that, once formed, can be more easily re-awakened, even if they haven’t been practiced in a while. For example, I’ve been running for many years, but l’ll go through sometimes long periods where I don’t run at all, for reasons such as work, the season, or travel. But when I do begin running again, after a short period of initial soreness, it’s pretty easy for me to ease back into it to the point where I was before. Of course, I ain’t a “master” runner. I don’t run races or anything. But my point is that if you’ve invested a fair amount of time in something in the past, if you begin doing it again, after a short re-learning period, you’re back on track fairly quickly based on where you left off.

All of this is essentially to say that I’m realizing that I have to get much more disciplined about investing more time back into activities and practices that are important to me to develop and maintain, such as writing as an avenue of self-exploration, reflection, connection to a larger community, and expansion of thoughts and feelings.

So here is an action plan, which I am hesitant to lay out as I hate promising things that I don’t follow up on, and I also doubt that anyone really cares about my personal goals, but I feel like it’s better to lay out concrete, explicit goals if this is really important to me:

  • I will write by hand in my journal 2 nights a week before going to bed (writing by hand forces me to produce a substantially different style of thought and writing, since I’m mainly accustomed to writing on a keyboard)
  • I will publish 1 blog post a week
  • I will play my hand drums once a week
  • I will hike at least twice a year

There it is. Now I’ve got to do the much harder work of holding myself to it.

Depressions in the Landscape

On the cusp of a vast depression in the earth, the water flows from slowly melting snow, gravity pulling it downward inevitably into a standing pool that will reflect the sky. Here birds and deer gather to drink, disturbing quietly the still pond. Here at one point in time sit some hikers, refreshing themselves from Nalgenes as they take a respite from 10 miles of rocks, mosquitoes, and uncertain unmaintained trails. The sun bakes the trees, rooted down below rock, suckling sustenance from reservoirs beyond the grasp of human immediacy. The clouds shift in thin rails across the blue, distant and cold in another atmosphere. A chickadee forlornly repeats its ancient refrain of hope, honed into a dirge of spring. The hikers speak of past lives in cities, jobs that stripped them bare of idealism. Office cubicles, running down alleyways and biking through intersections. Of women laid and never caught. Of families strewn on the rocks of Victorianism. Of drug exploration and growing up without expectation.

There is nothing that can compare to the silence of the sun beating off of a landscape as unhumanly manipulated as possible in this day and age. Other than the vast network of trails formed, and the overly rapacious chipmunks developed, and the condensement of trees from lack of fire. But to sit next to this collection of mountain water, and to drink, and discuss. There is nothing that can really be done except to eventually fall silent, and to observe. The hikers do just this, and a jet blows across the sky thousands of miles above, and a lizard scurries from rock to rock to find the declining naked sun, and ants are busy on the treelimbs above, transporting tidbits of food.

It really takes this distance from everything, sometimes, to fully almost realize just how intimately connected you are to everything. Like you have to step away, step far up on a mountain, step far down into some deep abyss, in order to detach yourself from what you normally conceive as yourself, to gather fully the larger context. To look beyond the chains that bind you to your circumstances to realize that the circumstances are only bound by what you can perceive. And that perception can only expand with distance. And retaining this afterimage as you descend back into civilization, the hikers take off their backpacks and throw them into the bed of the truck, and they start it up and disappear down the windy bumpy road into the messy, noisy interstitial madness of humanity. They meet up at a bar later that week and find that they are silent, unable to word their sudden difference, silent mourners nursing single beers in the half light of dusk on the patio, watching the sun setting behind a distant mountain range unseen.

The water falls without purpose, without creed. The mountains are raised by turbulent unseen depths. The stars shine out of death. Humanity is guided by what cannot be fathomed. By what cannot be mapped. By hearts as distant and beautiful as ice capped mountains melting into wildflowered meadows in the spring.