February 23 – Practice and Skill

“Skill to do comes of doing.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

In my life I have found that there is only one way to become good at something, and that is practice. Diligent repetition, accompanied by some coaching is what builds a skill in me. Whether it is the skill of public speaking, handling the finances of an IT Program, or writing a blog, there isn’t anything that I do with any level of skill that I wasn’t terrible at the first time. Only through practice did I attain a level of skill.

When I was a 7th grader one of my teachers noted that my voice carried well. She probably noted this because I was sitting in the back of the class, and my lack of self-discipline meant that I was talking when I shouldn’t. Whatever the case, she noted a raw gift. She asked me if I wanted to become a reader for my class Mass. I agreed, so along with a handful of my classmates, I was marched to the Church to practice. The microphone was turned on and one by one we were sent to the ambo to read a Scripture reading. There was no one in the church except for us, and still I was terrified. I mumbled and stumbled through the passage, all the while I was sure that everyone could hear my knees banging into each other.

I finished, and my teacher smiled and said I did a good job. She had me do it again. The second time wasn’t quite as bad as the first, and I managed to be a little better with an empty room. After a few days and a few turns at practice, it was my turn to read at a Mass. On that day there were probably 50 or 60 people in the Church. It was 8:00am on a weekday, so only my class, one of the younger classes and a few neighborhood diehards were present. I was terrified again, but I got through it without passing out or falling down.

For the rest of that school year, I had a monthly turn doing a reading. By the end of the year, I was speaking more strongly and confidently. I had gained a basic skill level. I continued being a reader through 8th grade, and was even asked to read at one of the Easter Masses for the entire Parish.

In High School I was on the Speech and Debate team. I continued to practice, with a strong coach at my side. In college and after college I continued to take turns speaking in front of audiences. In my career I have had many opportunities to practice and hone the skill of public speaking.  Today when I am called upon to speak to a group, I can do so without that terror being present. I am always still nervous when speaking to a group, but I manage that nervousness. People have come to me and told me that I am a “natural” at public speaking, and I thank them politely. The truth is that while I was born with the gift of a voice that projects well, it is the practice I have had that allows me to look natural. Nearly 40 years of practice in one form or another is why I make it look “easy” (trust me when I tell you, even after all these years there is nothing “easy” about speaking in front of an audience.).

Some years ago at work I was on a team that was divided up into skill areas. There were 5 or 6 of us, and each was given a set of Project Management fundamentals. We were all asked to become experts in those areas so that we could help write standards for the company. I was assigned Risk and Issue management. Over the next few months I studied them, and wrote a guide. All the while, the guy who sat across from me had Financial Management. When we rolled out our material, I sat and listened to his piece and I felt my stomach tie in knots. So much did I dislike doing Project Financial Management, that just hearing him talk about it bordered on making me ill.

A few years later I was thrust into a Program to take the place of someone who retired. My first assigned priority was to get the Finances in shape. I struggled mightily with it for those first few months. I got things terribly wrong, it took me longer than it should have, and I hated my job. Then I was assigned an analyst to help me. She was what you would call a “finance whiz”. She came in and patiently helped me undo my mistakes, and we got things in hand. I worked at learning the skills needed to be successful. Since then I have been on several projects where I am asked to manage complex financials. I will tell anyone who listens, that it is the part of my job I like the least. But, because I have had years of practice, I am grudgingly good at it.

I have other skills in my life also. And as I sit here this morning I cannot think of a single thing that I have become skilled at doing, that didn’t require years of practice. My list of things I want to do in life is long, and many of the items on the list require skills that I don’t have today. I know going forward that anything I want to be skilled at doing will require that I roll up my sleeves and practice. It is said that you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, but only by getting in water over your head and trying. Today, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds me that there isn’t any skill that can be gained without practice.

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