Hope vs. Practice

To follow up on the idea that hope is not the wonderful gift that it is portrayed as, let’s take a look at it as it applies to practice.

Do. Or Do Not.

Do you practice with the hope that you’ll get better at something? That is the idea, right? Why would you bother to do something if you weren’t hoping it would get you somewhere. You don’t do scales on a piano for the joy of the series of notes, right? You do them in the hope that the cognitive channels and muscle/nerve reactions will improve. This will hopefully translate into better ability to express yourself beautifully.

Might be so. I know that at one point in my high school jazz band career the other piano player (I switched off with her during concerts) came into morning rehearsal furious with me. I had no idea why; I felt pretty intimidated by her, since she was classically trained, whereas I was just a self-taught chord-banging novice with a couple of years of half-hearted practice under my fingers.

This particular morning, though, she was fuming at me. I had no idea why; it was the morning after a concert, we’d both played numbers (I’d gotten to do “Soul Man,” always a fun one) and I thought it had gone well. But she was glaring at me.

“I have been playing piano since I was six.” she growled.

I nodded, carefully, neutrally. “Yes…and you’re very good at it.”

“Yes. I am,” she stated emphatically. “And I’m much better at it than you.” I nodded; this was nothing to be ashamed of. “So explain to me why my mother said what she said last night after the concert.”

I felt like I was on thin ice. “What…was that?”

“She said ‘why can’t you play more like that Miller boy? He looks like he’s having so much fun up there.

I’m sure her mother arranged for piano lessons with the hope that she was giving the gift of music to her daughter. She got a very good pianist, with perfect form and excellent technique. Unfortunately, she wasn’t given the gift of expression. All the technique in the world didn’t help. She hoped for something but unfortunately hope didn’t provide the path that was needed to get what she wanted.

The Map Ain’t the Territory

I’m not sitting here saying that I was a better piano player. I never had a hope in hell of being a better pianist than her. So I didn’t bother hoping that I could play better, and just went about playing as well as I could. I practiced the parts I knew I could get (like the fun little octave jumps that are in Soul Man as ornaments at the end of phrases). I loved that little “da-doom-ching” part, and played it with such enthusiasm that everyone saw it. The rest of the chart? I maybe got some of the chords right. Fewer than Mr. Garvey (may he rest in peace) would have liked, but he still put me behind the keys. I can’t tell you if he hoped I would practice more; I know that he never actually sat down with me and worked out what I might be doing right or wrong.

If he did have hope, he didn’t put it into practice. I had practice, but never hoped to do better than I knew I could.

I think in some cases, the “hope” that comes with the start of a practice can be a false trail. It can bear little or no resemblance to the actual result of the practice. If you have a goal – something very different than a hope – you have a specific set of plans, steps, ingredients that will lead to a result.

To jump metaphors, if all you have are bisquick, eggs, and milk, no amount of hope is going to make you a steak dinner. But you can probably make some pretty awesome pancakes.

F*ck the Marshmallow

The above quote is from Steven Pressfield (yes, I know, I quote him too much). But it’s another, entirely separate reason that hope is not really useful for practice.

It’s in reference to the idea (recently called into question) that certain children who were part of the marshmallow experiment were more successful later in life because they waited for a hypothetical second marshmallow, instead of simply eating the marshmallow in front of them.

The idea is that if you have the patience to hone your craft, build bit by bit, you can work towards that reward later on – the second marshmallow. Pressfield suggests that the marshmallows need to not be the point of practice – that the work you do should be done for the sake of the work itself, and if you’re doing it for the hope of some reward in the future – marshmallow, book deal, leading role, spouse, degree, whatever – you’re probably going to be disappointed.

I happen to agree with him. I have found that those times that I’ve worked diligently and hard towards a specific goal – a title, a degree, whatever – the actual conferring of the reward, the actual attaining of the goal was never as satisfactory as the work itself. Sure, I’m glad I have the diploma, but I don’t sit there and fondle the red leather case; I look back at the pictures of the dances I created, performed in, at the programs from the shows I was part of. I could care less that I have the title of “grandpa”, unless it’s coming from Harvey’s lips with a big smile on his face.

Plans are great. Goals are fine, if you need them. But I’m not sure that hope has any place in a good, solid practice. I think hope might be that distraction that pulls you away from your actual practice, and takes you out of where you are into some hypothetical “should” or “would” or “could“.

I could be wrong. I ran into a guy a few weeks ago who, during a discussion on this very topic, stated that he has often set out specifically to achieve a certain goal – in relationships, in academia, in physical prowess – and every time he has, it has been precisely the way he expected, and eminently satisfying. It was kind of funny, because it was diametrically opposite from the point I was making at the time to the class.

So I blinked. I thought about it. And I said to the class, “Well, there you go. Your mileage may vary.” And we went on with the discussion. But I have to say, I feel a little sorry for him. I’ve found wonderful surprises and appreciated things far more when they’ve had nothing to do with my hopes. To have everything turn out the way I would expect…that seems pretty disappointing to me. Maybe it’s not for him.

I sure hope not.


2 thoughts on “Hope vs. Practice”

    1. neat little video. On an unrelated note, I find it odd that the comments all seem to be about Hitler, Zionism, and Mormon prophets…strange world, these interwebs.

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