Practise makes Spontaneous brilliance

I am not a person (by nature 1) who enjoys repetition. In fact, I thrive on changing circumstances. This has slowly shifted the older I get, but when I had a ‘sit-down-at-a-desk’ type job, I had to fill out the same reports first thing every morning. It was the worst part of my day.

Winter has just begun in South Africa, we are experiencing cold for the fist time in a house we moved into in the middle of summer. Every morning I am pushing myself through the cold air in the house and I do the same thing every morning. Run into the lounge and start a fire 2, and then turn on the kettle for some coffee.

Over 4 or so winters in South Africa, Do you know what I am pretty good at?

Making Fires and cups of coffee.

There are many other things I had hoped to become better at in my time here;

  • telling Jesus stories
  • DIY
  • Surfing
  • Gardening

And you know what? I’m not that great at those.

Our cultures celebrate excellence but for so many people finding excellence seems more like chance than something achievable. We are surrounded by glib phrases like “Maybe they were born with it” or “Some people just have it“.

What is more impressive than just sheer excellence, is what seems like spontaneous excellence. It is one thing to see an incredible concert pianist and another when a performer pulls an unknown person from the crowd and then suddenly the person emerges as an incredibly skilled musician themselves. We delight in it, few people can hold back there sense that there is something life affirming when someone does something great.

NT Wright, an anglican theologian from the UK, first opened my eyes to this dynamic in our culture. In a book on the idea of cultivating virtue 3, he talks about the hudson river plane crash from a few years ago when A plane was flying over downtown Manhattan and had to ditch into the hudson river.

The pilot managed to land the plane exactly flat on the river, saving all lives onboard. In a world of bad news cycles, this story held our attention for a few minutes longer than average as headlines and news casters called it “miraculous” and “lucky”. In a culture normally suspicious of such superstition-based terms, why did the re-telling of the event fall into this categories? Tom Wright’s contention is that we have lost an understanding of what it means to cultivate skill. Wright recounts how interviewers of the pilot marvelled at the pilots calmness and even how he had responded in interviews, as if it were somehow just all ‘a part of the job’. The pilot said he had practised that landing in his mind and in simulators thousands of times and then just “did what needed to be done”.

I think in a world that often sub-consciously tells people they are not, in some way, enough, this is the attraction of these moments, the idea that someone had ‘what it took’, or did ‘what needed to be done’.

Everyday we are making sub-conscious decisions with our time, and Thank the Lord we do have an ability to make sub-conscious decisions. Can you imagine having to make every decision in a deliberate and entirely conscious way. But in order to change, it might be an idea to consider what you do every day and consider what you might want to be spontaneously brilliant at. It doesn’t have to be some kind of performance-related activity like sport or music, it might be parenting with patience, holding your attention throughout a conversation entirely on what the person is saying rather your own inner-mind-wanderings.

The fact is repetition creates skill and skill creates the ability to be spontaneously brilliant. We are made to practise and gain skill, but in an age of spontaneity we lost that sense of the self-discipline. Our bodies even respond to skill, certain sports form our bodies in certain ways, guitar players talk about their hands having ‘muscle memory’ to form stretches and contortions that less practised musicians struggle to create.

I’m grateful that I’ve had many people pluck up enough courage to encourage me when they have seen me play guitar. They will often say, “You really are talented”, and even enter in to a kind of honour scarcity mindset and defame themselves to somehow make my achievement seem more; “I could never do that, it’s really amazing”. Whilst I know what they are trying to convey and am grateful for their sentiment, what their comments belittle is the literal 1000’s of hours (if not by now 10’s of thousands), that I’ve sat with a guitar in hand, struggling to make chords and transition smoothly. I’m not going to get into nature/nurture type conversations about whether I had something before I started or not, the fact is that, as the old adage goes, practise makes perfect, and while that is not true for everything, it is true for more things that you would think.

What could you be spontaneously brilliant at? Maybe it would just takes a few minutes of repetition a day, or maybe thousands of hours. But you are spending those hours somewhere anyway, why not make them count for something you want to be able to do.

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  1. whatever that means anyway.. 
  2. in a fire place, you’ll be glad to know. 
  3. A kind of moral skill that has been all but lost in the public life of most western societies. 

3 Comments on “Practise makes Spontaneous brilliance

  1. Thanks Liam……..enjoyed the challenge to persist at something new. I have a guitar leaning against the wall…..just maybe……….

  2. Malcom Gladwell (I know you mistrust his methods) explores this in one of his books. After reading this the Lord prompted me to ask Him what I have become brilliant at, so that was very encouraging; Thank you. Also I am dying to know what DIY stuff you intend to practice? Probably woodworks or home design if I am guessing right. ; )

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