Boating Adventures | "Practice Makes Perfect Better" by Vicki Totten

Our competition during the race

"Practice Makes Perfect Better" by Vicki Totten

"Practice makes perfect." I'm still waiting for the "perfect" part of that belief to appear. Of course, that could also be part of the problem, since it takes more than waiting. It takes action. Sustained action. It's not that I'm not good at anything. I'm pretty good at lots of things. I just don't know that I have ever experienced perfection in any one thing. It is also true that I may not have ever seriously attempted to do so, since I don't consider myself very competitive. I have managed to excel at things - often as a way to avoid embarrassing myself by failing. But one of the things I have been trying to at least get "better" at, if not to perfect, is being a better sailor. And I know to do that, it will take practice. And thankfully, this past week provided me an opportunity to do just that.

Each year for the past three years we have owned our sailboat, my husband and I have set goals for what we want to achieve with the boat. And each year we have failed to achieve those goals. To be fair, sometimes the goals weren't met because they were made while we were still teaching and so we didn't have enough time on the boat. Then we were delayed because we needed to tend to minor boat repairs that created natural roadblocks. And then over the past few months, travel, non- stop rain and then high winds got in our way. But last week we turned a corner. All of the stars lined up, meaning the weather and the boat both cooperated, to allow us to take the boat out four days in a row. What a difference that made. We both reached a new level of comfort in our role as sailors - he as the captain and me as crew. We even participated in a race on one of those days. And this time we raced our own boat, rather than crewing on someone else's. Our goal was simple. Our goal was to just have fun. But to have fun doing this activity that we were still learning, meant striking a balance between getting too frustrated or too bored.

Having fun with a friend

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmilalyi, author of Flow and several books on creativity asks the question: "what makes a life worth living?" His research points to something he describes as Flow. Flow is that moment when you are doing something that is not so much beyond your level of expertise that it is frustrating, but is challenging enough to not be boring. It is that moment when time stands still - when you are so totally engaged in the activity that you become unaware of the passage of time. For some people skiing is like this, for others it may be writing, or doing woodwork. For my husband, who is a master potter, it is probably when it is a good day in the studio. But I think we experienced what Mihaly's research would describe as Flow last week - and it felt wonderful.

Pete and Stan during the race
I don't yet know if this feeling of increased competence will continue, but I'm pretty sure that practice is the key. And there is plenty of science to back that belief up with. According to Stanford researcher and psychologist Carol Dweck, the predictor of success is not how smart or talented we are - it is the effort we put into the things we are doing. It doesn't matter what it is, whether it is playing baseball, learning a language, speaking in public, or becoming a better sailor - it is much less about having the skill than it is about practicing the skill. That's how we get better at something. Our sailing adventures this past week provide a great example of that. The key to becoming a better sailor is to repeat all of those aspects of sailing - docking, being at the helm, setting the sails - enough times until it begins to feel effortless. When that happens, according to neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, I will also have strengthened that neural pathway in my brain, which is what happens when we repeat an action over and over again and it has begun to feel effortless.

Getting easier and easier
But regardless of whether it felt effortless, you might be wondering if we won the race we were in last week. Well, remember, I said it was about having fun. So no, we didn't win. We came in third. Does it really matter third out of how many? OK, fine. Third out of three. The important thing is that it was so much fun that we will do it again, and again, and again. You know what they say, practice makes perfect - or in our case, practice makes better.

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat and are still working up the nerve to venture further out into the Gulf.

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