Life as a Practice: Pursuing Excellence in Daily Life
Pursuit of excellence in daily life
Recently, I wrote about why I pursue excellence over success. I alluded to the fact that I consider life to be a practice. What exactly does that mean? How does one pursue excellence in daily life?
Why is life a practice?
First, why do I consider life to be a practice? A practice is an activity you work at regularly and frequently; it involves learning, leveling up, increasing your mastery and skill, pursuing excellence at that activity. What activities count? A lot: most professions, arts, crafts, and sports, among other things.
Life can be a practice because life is something you can approach with more or less skill, that you can be, in some sense, "better" or "worse" at (though better or worse relative to what is open for discussion). Life is a practice when you actively try to improve how you live, how you are—if you try to achieve excellence in being.
Then, within your life, you may have multiple activities that are also practices. For example, some of the things I count are my academic work; my writing (I have a routine for it!); gardening and cooking; homemaking (which, as someone tweeted recently, is a career—but not one the government can easily tax!); and of course, in the past, fencing.
Today, I'm thinking about excellence in daily life in particular. My daily life does not revolve around my academic work or even around my writing (as important as these activities are); my daily life revolves around my kids, cooking, homemaking, crafting, and so forth. The issue at hand is that these are elements of daily life that aren't often seen as practices, at least not nowadays.
Vocational happiness and a sense of progress
Carrie Gress and Noelle Mering, authors of the beautiful book Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday, wrote an article on this topic. They explained how the pursuit of excellence is frequently missing from the modern homemaker's life. They outlined Patrick Lencioni's three elements of vocational happiness: i.e., the three things we all need to feel satisfied with our vocations (whether inside or outside the home):
Lencioni asks: 1) Am I respected and known in my job? 2) Do I know why my job matters? and 3) Am I progressing in my work, and is there a measure for this progress?
If the answer to any of these is no, an individual may feel disillusioned in his current role. What happens when we apply these questions to homemakers?
Gress and Mering point out that all three of these elements are lacking for modern homemakers. Being a mother isn't always respected; women often don't realize how important mothering and homemaking is; and there is little sense of progress.
I'm going to focus on that last one, because progression relates to life as practice and to the pursuit of excellence. As Gress and Mering pointed out, we used to have many daily activities that involved skill: crafts, textiles, food preservation, and so much more. These were areas where women at home could level up their skills, or form a part-time career. But now, with grocery stores and factory-made clothing, none of these skills are necessary to survival. We don't have to weave our own hats out of straw, dip our own candles, or preserve our own jam (though sometimes we do anyway—and sometimes women will still turn these activities into part-time careers). The point is, these activities—nearly everything once counted as essential homemaking activities—are optional. They're generally hobbies, and the essentials aren't interesting. Who was ever excited about learning the optimal way to load this dishwasher (except maybe some husbands who are intrigued by optimizing everything)? Do you ever level up your laundry folding techniques? Or, say, do you get better at shopping for children's shoes?
I'm not saying people didn't have chores in the good ol' days. There were plenty of mundane upkeep and maintenance tasks then, too. But there were also skilled tasks, and that makes a difference—not only for the sense of progression, but also for the other two aspects of vocational happiness. It's easier to see the importance and value of skilled work, whether you are the one doing it and recognizing that it matters, or whether you are observing someone else working. Too many people these days look at mothering and homemaking as unskilled jobs—perhaps, in part, because of the amount of relatively unskilled chores that come along with having children.
Progress in daily life: Effort and interest
In my first semester of college, I took the class COGS 100: Introduction to Cognitive Science. For the final paper, we were to choose a chapter from the second half of Paul Thagards book Hot Thought and expound upon it. Each of the chapters in the book covered a different topic: emotional coherence in legal inference or in emotion, emotion and scientific cognition, and so on. I chose a chapter on the emotional coherence of religion. However, I discovered that I had no idea how I would ramble on for 3000 words about just that one chapter. There wasn't enough information in those twenty-some pages to write something interesting, reflective, and comprehensive!
Sure, the paper assignment did say we ought to include at least a few references (so, not just the chapter). I found and read a couple other papers. But I still felt like I didn't have nearly enough information to write a whole paper. What was I going to say?
I went to the library. I spent 6 hours there the first day. I wandered through the psychology and cognitive science sections, collecting a large armful of books relating to emotion, emotional coherence, and the cognitive science of religion. I added more references (at least six were entire books). I probably put in double, or triple, the effort most other students put into that final paper. Or more, I have no way of knowing. It was fun, though; I liked learning about the topic. And anyway, I had to learn about it, in order to write about it. To summarize crassly, I had no concept of how to half-ass a paper.
Perhaps my seemingly unnecessary effort on that paper was an important factor in leading my professor to invite me to participate in the campus summer research program. It wasn't my goal. My goal was to learn enough to write a good paper (and I did, and got a good grade on it, for what that's worth). I didn't need to become an expert on the topic, obviously, I just needed to learn enough to write the paper.
Writing that paper is how I approach most of life.
Excellence in daily life
I put effort into the things that I find important. Pursuing excellence in life is partly about effort: putting sufficient effort into everything one does, especially the important things, and not skimping on effort even when a poor job might skate by. It's not about becoming a master at everything, though. For example, in grad school, I took a few extracurricular ceramics classes. I am not a master potter now, nor will I be. But I don't need to become a master potter to put in all my effort when learning a new thing. What's the point in doing otherwise? That's part of pursuing excellence in life, as treating life as a practice, while excellence in individual activities is more related to treating those individual activities as practices.
This all relates to my earlier discussion of approaching life with sincerity and playfulness, not seriousness. Approaching life with sincerity is not the same as pursuing excellence in daily life, but it is related, and is part of achieving excellence. Also relevant, though not all fully articulated yet, are some thoughts I have about self-discipline, sustained attention, curiosity, knowledge, freedom, learning, play, methods of education, and what makes life worthwhile…
Part of why I've been writing about all these topics is to disentangle them for myself: writing is thinking. As part of my consideration of how I live and how I ought to be living is consideration of what it means to pursue excellence in life—what that actually consists of.
Although the definition of pursuing excellence in life is still nebulous (as so many things are), we can begin to circle around it and ask: If we treat life as a practice, how do we level up? What progress is there? In most practices (cooking, crafting, working, etc), you can see tangible skill increases, higher quality products as an outcome, and so forth. What counts as leveling up in life?
The most concise way to put it might be in terms of virtue. You're leveling up if you're increasing in virtue—where virtue means embodying the qualities you find most important and beautiful, whether the classic Christian Cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance), Aristotle's 12 virtues (courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, ambition, patience, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, modesty, justice), or some other set (such as diligence, discipline, equanimity, flexibility, compassion, etc).
The methodologies you use to level up in virtue may vary. For example, Randy has written about several methods: following Catholic teachings and rules; self-denial as a tool; building good habits following Aristotle's thinking on virtue and vice. But these are just some.
Excellence applied to my life
My approach to life is to pursue excellence, be sincere and playful, and follow my curiosity. As I talked about in my TEDx talk last year, I've always had the freedom to learn, to play, to pursue what interests me—from a childhood of homeschooling, community college classes that sparked my interest, choosing a college and then a major at Vassar that let me take nearly whatever classes I wanted; pursuing research and a PhD because I enjoyed research and wanted to explore certain topics in depth; leaving full-time academia to be home, and everything else I'm doing now.
Now? I have flexibility: to be with my children, to read, write, think, work on skills and virtues. These are what matter. I won't be satisfied with a job that doesn't let me continue exploring, progressing, and learning.
Some activities are dabbling, hobbies. For example, during Project Clean The Office, I made a couple rag rugs from old flannel sheets and old t-shirts. This was ostensibly to clear space by emptying my scrap fabric bin. In reality, some family members thought the rugs were so cool, they donated fabric from their scrap piles for future rug-making endeavors, which has resulted in more than twice the amount of scrap fabric now stored in the office. But that aside. Sometimes I draw, or paint, or sew.
Dabbling fits into my philosophy because, as I said earlier, I don't need to be a master at everything (Jackie of all trades, master of none?). I'm crafting for enjoyment, to make something interesting, beautiful, and/or useful: leather coasters, a picnic blanket from old jeans, colorful rugs, tasty jam, etc. I'm putting in effort regardless; maybe I level up my skills, maybe not.
In other areas, I do intentionally try to level up. Cooking, gardening, raising my children, writing, living—the activities that I consider practices are places where I put more effort, more energy, more intent to improve. And that's how it should be.