A common saying in judo is, “the best practice for judo is judo.” Thinking about judo will not make you a great judoka. Reading about and studying judo will not make you a great judoka. Strength and cardio training will not make you a great judoka. All of those things can and do help, but ultimately, the only way to become a great judoka is to step onto the mat and practice judo. In judo and other Japanese martial arts, we call this randori, or free practice; just you and your opponent trying to throw each other.
The principle of randori, of improving through practice, can be applied to everything. The best practice for cooking is cooking. The best practice for singing is singing. The best practice for math is math. The best, probably the only, way to become great at something is to do it. Over and over and over. Practice, learn from your mistakes, try to improve, and practice again.
The Ceramics Parable
There’s a contemporary parable from The Art of Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
"A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an “A.” Well, came grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
The parable is aimed at artists and creators, and as a writer and photographer, it hits home. Especially as a writer. I’ve been writing since elementary school: poetry, short stories, Star Wars fanfic, D&D adventures… Academically, I was regularly praised for my writing, especially in grad school. As a professional writer, however, I’ve struggled to produce (this blog has stalled, for example). I have notebooks, loose pages, and Word documents filled with notes, outlines, and paragraphs; half-finished pieces of work that “aren’t ready yet.” Instead of writing, I find myself looking for writing classes or workshops, researching SEO techniques and optimal essay lengths, and even googling “best pens.”
It’s incredibly frustrating. Academically, I could churn out a management or policy analysis in a weekend. Yet my essay on the history of tule elk conservation stalls out, despite it being a topic I’m interested in. In school, however, I had a limited audience; my professors were the only ones to read what I’d written. And I had deadlines. I was going to drop some sort of finished product on my professor’s desk on the due date. Best, worst, or mediocre, something was going to be turned in.
Professionally, I have no deadlines. I don’t have an editor or agent breathing down my neck, I’m not under any contracts to write, and this is a side project where I don’t rely on my earnings to make a living. And my audience is potentially much broader. If something I write goes viral, I want it to do so because it’s an excellent piece of writing, insightful and profound. Not because it’s an incoherent, rambling dumpster fire.
As a result, I have allowed perfect to become the enemy of good. Ironically, I have been far more forgiving of myself as a photographer. There, I’m completely open to being a rookie in a complex field. Nothing I’ve shot has been amazing or particularly unique. It’s been fun to try and to practice, however, to improve on my scale, and show off my work. At least I’m no longer taking pictures of my friend’s hand and water bottle as she blocks the bird.
You Cannot Theorize Your Way Through Life
The lesson of improving through practice and doing doesn’t only apply to sports and art. It applies to life. Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing what a good (person) should be. Be one.” He says you cannot be a good person by studying and planning how to be a good person. You have to go out and practice being a good person. Similarly, you can’t live by theorizing your life. You have to live it.
At some point, we became obsessed with optimizing our lives. I don’t know where it started, but I’ve heard several hypotheses. That it started when we told our kids “they could be whatever they wanted,” and we also conditioned them to think what the “best” use of their talents would be. That it started when parents started planning their idealized versions of their children’s college and professional lives before their kids were in pre-school. That it started with scientists releasing conflicting research combined with the general public’s scientific illiteracy and “not knowing who to believe.” That is started with social media, influencers, hustle culture, and personal branding. I don’t know where it started, but I know I feel its effects. I struggle to allow myself to be “unproductive” or to have hobbies that I’m not trying to monetize (I say, ironically, as I’m writing this in hopes of becoming a paid writer).
In our quest to optimize our lives, we analyze and over-analyze everything, leading to “analysis paralysis.” We spend so much time agonizing over what we “should” do or what the “best” thing for us to do is that we don’t do anything at all for fear of making a sub-optimal choice. We don’t take the first steps, when those first steps are what would have the most impact on our success and happiness.
For example, if you ever want to start an argument, ask personal trainers what the best frequency, number of sets, and number of reps. You will hear all sorts of answers. Three full-body workouts a week with 3 sets of 12 reps per exercise; 4 workouts a week in an upper/lower split with 4 sets of 8 reps per exercise; 6 workouts a week in a push/pull split with 6 sets of 4 reps per exercise, and so forth.
The reality? It doesn’t matter. The time spent debating and anguishing over the “best” strength training regimen would be better spent doing actual strength training. You may not get the “optimal” results, but over the course of your life you’ll get far better results than if you didn’t do anything at all or if you spent all your time researching what to do. Don’t stay up late reading about how much sleep you should get; go to sleep. Don’t read about investing and try to time the market; invest your money in a low-cost index fund, and leave it there. Don’t read what vitamins and minerals every vegetable has; eat more vegetables and a wider variety of them. You don’t need to know everything or be perfect at everything.
“Consistently good” beats “sporadically optimal” every time.
You Cannot Plan Your Way Through Life
General George S. Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” When we get too caught up in trying to optimize our lives, we often try to optimize our plans for the future. We put off decisions and delay action, agonize that we don’t have a crystal ball that can foresee the future, and we stop living in the present.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with some big life changes on the horizon. Decisions on where I want to live, and considering how that would affect my relationships, my quality of life, and my career. Any decision I make, including deciding to stay where I’m at, will have consequences. There’s a lot to consider, a lot of moving parts, some of the parts aren’t within my control, and there’s some waiting. Nothing is going to change overnight, but I’d like to get some things figured out in the next year or so.
Instead of focusing on the next year though and what I need to do, I find myself thinking about the next 5, 10, or even 20 years. Things like, “If I moved to this city, would I want to retire there?” Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with considering the long-term future and being strategic (strategy is part of my thing!). I’m thinking about things, however, that aren’t urgent and don’t actually matter, except for some idealized “optimal life plan.” For example, as part of considering how moving might impact my career, I’m debating if want to prepare for a managerial role, or if I want to try to continue to advance as a subject matter expert. I’ve thought about going back to school for either a Master of Public Administration (MPA) or a Master of Public Policy (MPP). An MPA would make me marginally more suited for a managerial role, while an MPP would make me marginally more suited for a subject matter expert role. The reality though? The two degrees have so much overlap that combined with my professional experience, it doesn’t matter which I choose. But knowing that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it, trying to optimize my plan, and letting it get in the way of me taking action on the more immediate, short-term things I can do. My “perfect plan next week” is taking priority over my “good plan violently executed now.”
As a result of my overthinking, I’ve been a grumpy, brooding stress monster, and making myself and everyone around me miserable. I’m thinking and acting as though this decision will be the last one I ever make, will set the trajectory for the rest of my life, and as though there will never be opportunities to course correct. I’m thinking and acting as though I’ve never made a mistake, missed an opportunity, or zigged when I should’ve zagged. Worst of all, I’m thinking and acting as though I’ve never recovered from any of my (numerous) misadventures.
Many things in my life haven’t gone according to plan. My life is dramatically different than what I thought it would be 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. I hesitate to put a value statement by saying my life is better or worse than I thought it would be; it’s just different. There have certainly been obstacles and mistakes, but there have also been opportunities and good luck. I’ve always been fortunate enough to outmaneuver, outwit, or outlast whatever challenges I’ve encountered. Sometimes, just by banging my head against the wall until the wall gave up. Most importantly, I’ve always been able to find meaning and joy in what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been, and the people I’ve been with. Not always in the moment; sometimes things have just… sucked. But in hindsight, I can smile and enjoy the memories. Or at least appreciate the lessons.
I have always persevered. Persevering can be exhausting, and sometimes, I’d just like to be able to sleep for a week and then coast for a while. But I’ve always figured it out. Despite that past returns are no guarantee of future performance, I have no reason to doubt my ability to continue to figure things out.
The point is you can’t live a good life by studying or planning it. I’ve tried. Despite my best advice, I continue to try. As I click the “publish” button on this essay, a voice in the back of my head still says “this isn’t ready.” I still have a document titled “My Strategic Plan” open and ready for me to start thinking and analyzing again. Hopefully, I’ll close it for now, even if just for the night.
Life is just one long randori. The only way for you to get better at it is to live it, practice at it, and learn from it. Things won’t go according to plan. You will make mistakes. You will sometimes lose, and even then, the randori doesn’t stop. You will be bloody and bruised. And then you will get back up, and continue living.