Deliberate practice can conquer life, ego

SOME folks at work were discussing their sports experiences. Some have done team sports, some have done martial arts. Deliberate practice, they said, entrenches the memory of the correct stance or form or whatever into your muscles.

I know I can still do a judo roll even though my one and only judo class was five years ago.

Gyms aren't my bag. I don't even know the protocols. Do other people critique your form? How do you decide which machines to use and for how long?

It's easier for me to exercise in a structured class setting, where I do what someone tells me and I learn a skill. Otherwise inertia takes over.

I have a sedentary lifestyle, and I'm fighting that.

My parents didn't take us hiking or play catch with us, so I never got used to physical activity for its own sake as ordinary fun.

Hey parents: don't make that choice.

The diseases of abundance haunt me. I have a family history of diabetes and heart disease, so a habit of exercise would do me good.

Some parents give their kids a temperament for sports and a weakness for alcoholism; mine gave me lots of encouragement about writing and reading. I hope it balances out.

Once, in high school, there was a substantial gap between me and some of my peers in our writing skills. I was a better writer than lots of kids in the junior honors English class.

I realize now that I had more practice — from writing for the newspaper, in a diary, in e-mail, in newsgroups, what have you — and read tons for pleasure. So I just had more mental muscle memory.

After our first big essay for the class, Mr. Hatch passed mine around as an example; he tried to hide the name, but the length of the Sharpie mark kind of gave it away.

One day, Mr. Hatch was giving the class much-needed tips for writing better papers. Behaving like an arrogant sod, I said something like, "Why do other people need this stuff? I don't."

Well, first, it's not like I was Jon Carroll back then, so yes, I could have used that stuff, and eventually did. But more importantly, even though I wasn't being malicious, I was rude.

Now, there are people who say there's no such thing as arrogance, who would see nothing wrong with saying they're awesome, to whom humility, embarrassment, hubris, etc., are useless concepts that get in the way of efficient markets.

Those people I've met who have this attitude also tend to be white male libertarians to whom things come easily.

There is this thing called kindness, and it includes not eating a Snickers bar in front of a hungry person, and it includes not bragging about your skills in front of people who are trying valiantly to accomplish what you attained, especially if you got there without much effort.

Mr. Hatch did what he never did, which was reveal a student's grades to other students. He replied to my complaint by saying that if I had followed these tips, I would have received a 7 (an A+) on the previous assignment instead of a 6+ (an A or an A-).

My classmates oooohed at the smackdown. I took it well, and I didn't insult their writing skills again.

Back then, I thought I was a fantastic writer. Am I an expert at anything now? The larger my realm of experience gets, the more insignificant my tiny efforts seem.

What do I deliberately practice? What skills have I mastered? And what did my parents give me, in nature and nurture, that let me leap ahead?

I have no perspective on my own expertise, and no expertise on gaining perspective.

When something great

happens in my life, I tend to think it's because of luck and discount my own effort. I aw-shucks my own accomplishments. And then I envy successful people instead of admire them.

Envy comes from impotent desire. Role models get admired, the admirer assuming that he can get there too.

Do sports teach that deliberate practice leads to results? What would I have been had I played sports or music when I was young, before my neural pathways set?

One class in judo hardly makes me an expert, but one of its lessons has stayed with me. I roll when I fall. I am darn good at that. And we all fall — all the time.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at