I was ten when I started to play the clarinet, and after a few years of instruction through my school I began to take private lessons. That meant practice—daily practice— which I continued for almost four years.

My kids have taken lessons for different activities but have never found anything they stick with or practice. They’re still young, but I sometimes worry that they won’t find anything they enjoy enough (or care enough about) to practice. I think that there’s something about practicing, or having a practice, that is missing when you simply “dabble.”

When you read what people say about practice, it’s almost always connected with developing skill, getting better, even achieving perfection. Martha Graham said, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” Ray Bradbury agreed: “I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.”

You probably will get better with practice; I got pretty good after all of those lessons and daily practice time. Most people don’t develop real skill at anything without practicing. But I also think there’s value in the practice itself. Putting a little bit of time into something day after day changes you. Even as you have success, you fail daily and learn how to keep trying. As you learn more, you realize how much more there is to learn. You understand that it’s a mountain you could climb forever without ever reaching the summit. You learn about discipline and perseverance. You appreciate what it takes to really know something.

So much of what we value requires a little bit of effort given consistently over a long time: religious practice or meditation; physical fitness; learning a new sport, language, or piece of software. Even planting a garden requires time every day over months to turn a piece of ground and a handful of seeds into plants and fruits and vegetables. (And let’s not even talk about parenting…) None of these things are about instant gratification; there’s no easy fix, no magic pill, no shortcut. Even as we value the results of practice, a lot of us find it challenging to keep up in our everyday lives. I wonder if some of these things will ever be appealing to my kids. Will they just consider it all too much work? Have I done enough to encourage practice?

What do you think? Do you have something that you practice? How did you start? What keeps you going? What do you think is the most important thing about practice? Please share your thoughts!