I am infatuated with practice. Deliberately sharpening skills is an idea I’m comfortable with from extensive time playing and coaching football. I have seen how consistently honing skills can bring about improvement and, eventually, mastery.
But not just idly practicing, or “going through the motions.” By challenging ones’ self with new exercises. By getting out of a comfortable place and into new territory. With intention.
In addition to my personal experiences, I have studied the work of individuals who have dedicated their lives to the science of improvement. I have drawn from a well of inspiration that includes, but is not limited to, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and next on my list are Anders Ericsson’s Peak and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. These thinkers have inspired me to concoct new ways to practice.
I now know more about intentional practice than ever in my life. But instead of applying these principles to sports, I now apply them to writing.
My first challenge has been playing out on social media for a few months. For a lengthier explanation, I wrote about observing the world through a writer’s eyes here. Next, I wrote a piece for my alumni magazine about delicious stuffed chicken wings, something that took me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to work with an editor. And now, I’m forcing myself to try new versions of the same story.
I love finding shark teeth.
I could call it a family tradition. My Dad, who I’m losing to Alzheimer’s, and my Mom, who I love dearly, both taught me how to find them from an age when I didn’t have to bend down to spot them.
I don’t have keen eyesight. But if I did, the hunt would be easier. I look like the Hunchback of Neptune Beach while I search: head down by my knees, butt in the air, hands locked around my lower back, taking slow, awkward steps through the sand.
But the lower back pain is worth it. Finding one is like striking gold! I see the smooth, shiny texture coming to a point on one end and my heart races. I have to act like it’s not my first one, otherwise beach patrons might call the authorities about the crazy guy a few feet from their feet. I pocket my treasure and I put them in a jar at home. My jar is small, but someday I’ll need a larger one like Dad’s.
It’s a leisurely activity. I don’t wake up to go find shark teeth, I just look for them when I happen to be on the beach. But the other day I realized I could find more, if I wanted.
The beach I currently frequent, Bay Street access in Neptune Beach, FL, isn’t exactly a hotbed for shark tooth activity. I spent 30 minutes scouring the sand and only found two teeth (although I have to admit, they were both beauties). This is a typical catch… for that segment of sand.
However, if I were to ride my beach cruiser bicycle just two miles south, my haul could have been increased. Just a few minutes down the coast the sharks’ teeth can be found in abundance. I have lots of hypotheses about this phenomenon (jetties, tides, dredging, etc.) but I don’t need to know the real reason, just that there’s more down there.
Maybe it was the blood rushing to my head while the waves lapped on my toes, but I had an epiphany. Finding shark teeth is a lot like finding good sales leads.
Shark teeth, like sales, aren’t found everywhere. You have to know where to look and spend your time there. I can look for shark teeth all day near Bay Street and produce a minimal return of two on the low end or ten on the high. But, if I really wanted to fill my jar, I’d have to go where they are. If I went two miles south, I could double or triple my findings in the same amount of time because that’s where the teeth, aka my leads, are.
So, are you looking for shark teeth in front of your house because it’s convenient? Or are you looking for shark teeth where you know they can be found in abundance?
You position your body toward the sun, forcing your shadow to stand behind you. You see something that is the right color, the right texture, and that’s in the right place. But, because your eyesight isn’t amazing, you need a closer look. You bend down to investigate the sharp, smooth triangular shape you spotted amongst the shells. Upon closer inspection, you realize you’ve nabbed your first shark’s tooth of the day.
Once standing erect, you inspect your treasure and smile into the beating Florida sun. You love finding sharks’ teeth, it’s nostalgic of your childhood. Both parents shared this activity with you and you hope to someday share it with your own unborn children.
Introspection is inevitable with nature all around you. As you go back into hunting mode, you begin to think about how difficult your mission is today. You think about past times, walking further South, when the shark teeth appeared in abundance. Your mind oscillates between seashells and sales calls, the topic that’s been preoccupying your thoughts most of the week, and you begin to compare the two.
You could easily find more shark teeth if you were willing to go two miles south. Just like you’re more likely to find more sales leads by traveling all over the country. If you stay in front of your house, where it’s comfortable and convenient, you have to live with the fact that you might not find as many gems as you could if you were willing to get uncomfortable. Just like sales, you have to be willing to pursue the spoils if you want to bring them home. Otherwise, you have to be content with whatever is out front of your house.
The outline of a blog post begins to form in your mind and just as you’re about to call it a day, you spot another sharp, smooth triangular shape under a light film of salt water. Maybe there is more to be found in your comfort zone than you realize.
Finding sharks’ teeth is a hit or miss challenge. But the hitting or the missing has less to do with the finder than it does with the environment.
Certain places on the beach attract more sharks’ teeth due to a number of factors unnecessary to this example. And if one knows where those areas are, one can easily go to said areas to find an abundance of shark teeth. IF that is one’s goal. For example, although it may be the most convenient, the spot a regular beachgoer frequents may not be the richest in sharks’ teeth. The most fertile ground may be a few blocks, miles, or even states away.
In that respect, finding sharks’ teeth is comparable to chasing sales leads.
Many sales people would prefer to chase the leads that are easier to get to: the sharks’ teeth on the closest beach access. But if there was a need to bring home a bigger payout, one would need to go where there are higher quality and quantity teeth to be found. A salesperson can work an area as hard as they want, but if there are only two teeth to be found to begin with, they will max out at two treasures. And that’s assuming they have a 100% closing rate. However, if they do their research and find an area with 20 teeth, then do their hunting there, they have a better chance to bring home a larger load.
This comes with caveats like more competition in opportunity-rich spaces, unfamiliar terrain, and the hassle of travel. But that is a question for the salesperson and the shark tooth finder; is the added hassle worth the probability of a bigger payout?
These versions appear in the order in which I wrote them: first, second, and third. This is how they formed in my mind. Take notice of the length, they shortened with each version. I am able to simplify the point of my story with each iteration. This is a byproduct of deliberately sharpening skills. Also, you’ll notice how the storytelling aspect shifts with the versions. These aren’t necessarily good or bad, but it’s great for me to know as I write new stories, blog posts, and books.
I won’t be writing each new piece in three versions, don’t worry. But this exercise has helped me go places with my writing I wouldn’t have previously. And, when I need it, I will refer back to this exercise to get me out of a rut.
“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I have a few ideas about how to continue improving my writing: blog posts entirely made up of questions, backwards blog posts, the obituary exercise, short stories, and more. If you follow the blog, keep an eye out for what looks like an experiment and let me know what you think. I won’t always comment on them like I have here, they may be disguised.
If you don’t follow the blog and you’re just here looking for deliberate practice ideas, I hope this has provided you with some inspiration. How will you push yourself in your chosen field?