From Concept to Embodiment: You Are What You Practice
The office receptionist called to say that my client, Max, had arrived for his appointment. He also said that Max was carrying a baseball bat. When I met the client in the reception area, I reassured the receptionist that Max and I were simply doing batting practice that afternoon.
Months earlier, Max had told me about his youth and his love of baseball. In those years, Max and his buddies met-up and played baseball as often as they could. They weren’t in a league; they simply played for the joy of it. When Max went to high school, the football coach insisted that Max play football. No longer was there time for baseball.
Many years later, Max visited Louisville. While there, Max bought a baseball bat and had his name inscribed on it. When he returned home, Max put the baseball bat in a closet where it remained for many years. The baseball bat did not see the light of day until I asked Max to bring the bat to our coaching session.
In our coaching, Max spoke of wanting to live a life of hope and joy. He was retired from a very successful career as an attorney. He was thankful for many people and events in his life. Although Max wanted a life of hope and joy, worry and occasional depression dogged him. Day to day, hope and joy seemed to elude him. I wondered how Max could directly experience hope and joy, not merely speak about it.
In our conversations, Max came alive speaking of playing baseball. Listening to him, I felt his energy. For both of us, hope and joy became palpable in the stories Max shared about his love of baseball. It was for that reason that I invited Max to bring his bat to our next coaching session.
In my office that afternoon, I invited Max to pick-up his bat and take a swing. As he did so, he came within inches of a lamp. As it turns out, my small office was no place for batting practice. So, we moved outdoors. In the spacious backyard, on a sunny summer afternoon, Max unleashed one swing after another. Each swing was delivered with more energy. There was no hesitation, only the joy of stepping into a practice long abandoned. Then, I asked Max to voice his commitment to hope and joy with each swing of his bat. He did so eagerly. When asked, Max reported that he felt alive, awash in gratitude and optimism. Max had come to find a practice in which he actually embodied his commitment and experienced hope and joy. No longer was hope and joy merely an elusive concept.
At the conclusion of our coaching session, Max agreed to continue his batting practice on a daily basis, speaking his commitment to hope and joy with each swing of the bat. It made sense to him that he needed to practice the quality he sought to develop, in a manner similar to learning to ski, play a trumpet, or write a legal memorandum. For that reason, Max also agreed to hit some balls in a batting cage and to locate an adult league.
Lawyers are bright people, good at thinking things through. Sometimes the premium we place on analysis ignores how people actually change over time. Simply willing ourselves to change will not bring about the change we seek. For example, have you ever decided to lose a few pounds, only to fail or defer weight loss to another time? Have you ever bought a self-hope book, been enthusiastic about what you read, yet failed to change?
The challenge is to move from a resolution to practicing what you want to develop. If you want to swim, get wet and learn a stroke or two. If you want to golf, not only buy the clubs, but also learn how to connect with the ball. You must practice the change you want to be. Living your life as a spectator is no substitute for practice.
From where I stand, I have learned that we are what we practice. As Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do.” Centuries later, neuroscience is learning how people change through practices and that we do not change by merely being introduced to a new idea. Literally, we are the sum of our practices. We embody what we practice. For our practices to be generative and life-affirming, we need a narrative of why the practice is important. So it was for Max. A life of hope and joy was the prize and the for-sake-of-what he practiced. Each time he took the bat into his hands and stepped into his swing, he felt and practiced the qualities so important to him at this time of his life.