How do you become an expert at something? Or even competent? The goal for physical therapy programs across the country is to graduate “entry level physical therapists”. I am currently participating in my first clinical rotation as a physical therapy student and I am incredibly humbled by the skill and tact demonstrated by the health professionals that I am practicing alongside! There is a big gap between my student-level skills and the skills that I need to feel like a true “entry level physical therapist”!
Whenever I get impatient and frustrated with myself, I try to remind myself of the many repetitions needed to truly learn a skill; this cycle of circling back to the beginning and practicing again and again…and again and again. This of course is not a new idea, some of my favorite thinkers espouse the imperative iterative process of learning through practice. Soccer great Pele writes, “Everything is practice,” Malcolm Gladwell has become famous for his “10,000 hour” rule for achieving mastery in a profession, and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the psychologist famous for his work on the construct of “flow”) says with regards to the discipline of study and practice: “you must learn your craft and then set it aside.” In his book on creativity, Mihaly writes that creativity or ingenuity can only follow mastery of one’s skill set or profession through hours and indeed years of practice.
I am currently in a hospital setting for my clinical rotation and so I can’t help but be inspired by the many brilliant minds that make this health care machine work: the doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, and many others. But, due to the high number of post-operative patients (patients who have just undergone some kind of surgery) that I am working with, I have to admit a special fascination and respect for surgeons. In his book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance” surgeon Atul Gawande writes, “When I was a student and then a resident, my deepest concern was to become competent.”
I am awestruck at how closely this statement matches my inner dialogue these days. Striving for competence. Practicing, failing, iterations of the first practiced skill, repeating, learning, but always striving for competence and an “entry level” physical therapy skill set.
One of the principles that Gawande outlines in this book as a requirements for “betterment” and success in the field of medicine is “diligence.” To me, diligence can be loosely translated as “deliberate practice.” Gawande, lives the ethos that he writes about and is himself a respected doctor, author, and seemingly lifelong learner. To this end, he also writes, “Betterment is a perpetual labor”.
So, there you have it, through the advice of many great scientists, athletes, thinkers, and writers: this idea of practice and repetition reigns supreme. And, the circle of practice is where I find myself these days. The more I can buy in to this idea of committing to the circle and the cycle of the process of learning the easier it is for me to stick with the work. Of course, this is something I must commit to because there is no way to cheat the learning process and no way to forego the small failures and struggles that allow for feedback and learning to take place. There is no quick and easy path. There is only practice.
Check out my post on circular vs. linear thinking: The Circles You Move In: Part 1- Begin Again.