Practice is everything. This is often misquoted as Practice makes perfect. – Periander
I recently read “Terry Pratchett: A life with footnotes” and then watched Stutz, a conversation between actor Jonah Hill and his therapist, Phil Stutz.
Pratchett had a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease and Stutz has Parkinson’s disease, debilitating conditions that affected their ability to do their work.
Pratchett, despite this, wrote 41 books with ten more in progress crushed under a steamroller when he died. Although some people, who don’t really know what they’re talking about, criticise his work, his books are filled with insights into how people think and act and feel, very real things that matter in the world explored through the use of a fantastical setting.
A post on LinkedIn pointed me to the Stutz documentary, and then thing that really caught my interest was his “unique, visual model of therapy”. That’s in line with the theme of this blog. Stutz uses a number of models, what he calls “tools” and draws them for his patients on index cards. He uses a black pen and his wavering hand and the shaky lines of the drawings he makes are somewhat haunting.
One reason why these two individuals are interesting to me is that they have methods they use – Pratchett’s adult books are unique because he just writes them through – no planning, no corkboards filled with plotlines – no chapters. Just a story that he writes using a Word document filled with, we are told, different fonts and sections. And he’s usually working on a few of these at a time with other works or passages saved in the “pit”. Stutz’s uses index cards and drawings to help patients visualise and remember a particular tool so that they can remember how it works and use it in a situation when needed.
Methods are great – they can be described and written up and published and pointed to as approaches that can be used by anyone. But sometimes it becomes all about the method and people forget that there’s practice involved as well. Methods are like tools, like having a saw or hammer. But there’s a world of difference between my inept handling of a saw and how a joiner uses it to create a piece of furniture. Methods should be seen as a starting point for the development of one’s own practice – not as the end result of the work.
In my area of research – operational research – perhaps that’s why so few methods are used by anyone other than the founders. That’s the case for many tools – unless they are very simple. The extent to which you complicate methods seems to have an inverse relationship with the rate of adoption – that’s obvious really – the harder it is to do something the fewer people will do it.
Does that rarity make it valuable?
It’s hard to tell the difference between something that people don’t do because it’s too hard, even though it has benefits, or because it’s just not worth doing. That judgement has to be made by each individual practitioner, and that’s why practice is the step that comes after the creation of a method.
Practice is the application of method and the refinement of how it’s applied so that it fits you, the practitioner. The constraints you put on yourself affect how you do what you do – from the tools you use to the way in which you produce and share work.
These kinds of ideas are meta concepts – ideas about ideas – so how can we make this practical.
Take the theme of this blog – the idea that making drawings can help you think about situations. That can change the way you see and talk about everything from organisational development to how you interact with your children or process your experiences. But drawing is not a general method. It is, instead, something very specific to the particular situation you find yourself in – something you could call an episode, with a defined beginning and end.
These episodes, defined moments of time, are when you apply your method and practise your practice. When it comes to applying drawing you can do it like Stultz – naming a tool and creating an image that helps you remember it. One example that he uses that I wrote about in a different context is the idea of a string of pearls.
Where am I going with this?
In a blog post like this I can describe the context of the work that I’m trying to do – something about how we can understand situations using visual tools. The detailed description of that approach is what goes into a published paper – these thoughts are the context, the muddling-throughs that happen as we think about ideas and concepts and relate them to each other.
I think it comes down to this.
You try doing something and when it works for you again and again you write down what you did and call it a method. Others then see that method and try it out for themselves. The trick is not to see the method as the end result in itself but as a starting point for your own learning – your own practice – which is how you take something that works in principle and make it work for you in practice in your own unique and valuable way.