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Certain goals (well, most goals worth striving for) cannot be achieved by forcing our way towards them in one huge burst of effort. Instead, they require consistent, daily practice over a long period of time. In kendo, for example, as in many disciplines rooted in Zen Buddhism, performing 1 million sword swings (suburi) is said to lead to divine level of understanding of the Way of the Sword. The number 1,000,000 has some special place in Buddhism. For example, reciting a sutra 1,000,000 times would lead to enlightenment (or so they say). The point is, it is not enough to understand the technique mentally; one must truly make it a part of daily life.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many teachers value “stick-to-it-iveness” over talent in their students. It is one thing to grasp the basics quickly due to one’s natural abilities and it is another thing altogether to have dedication to show up for practice on the daily basis. Great changes happen by evolution, not revolution…

Of course, the showing up aspect becomes easier, at least at some basic level, as time goes by, because the practise becomes a habit. In other words, it becomes easier to practice than not to practice. That is why it is important to set yourself up for success initially, to make it impossible to fail during the first weeks that are crucial to habit-forming. For example, do not commit to doing thousands or even hundreds suburi, pushups, fill-the-blank’s, etc.; do just 5 or 10 (surely you can spare 30 seconds out of even the busiest day!), but do it every day, without exceptions, and do it first thing after waking up, so that there is no possibility of postponing it until tomorrow.

Digging a bit deeper, however, things become more complicated. Suppose, the habit of practicing has been formed and we are cranking out the reps on the daily basis. This is where the practice becomes automatic, mechanical, and thus loses its quality. A high-level kendo sensei once pointed out a fact that sounded like a truism: factors that lead to success are (a) quantity of practice and (b) quality of practice.

Still, there is something inherently fascinating about the transforming effects of daily practice. Perhaps, this is why sharing workout logs with the numbers of accumulated pushups, miles, steps, etc. are so popular in the social media, and so are the “365 photos” projects, where photographers take and share a photo every day for one year.

With the photography or blogging projects in particular, the inevitable (but, hopefully temporary) drop in quality is obvious not only to the author, but also to the audience – things are no longer interesting when the novelty wears away. I think that this is the point where it is important to slow down and to bring the quality back into focus, while still showing up for practice every day. This means that the 1,000,000 suburi mark, “where the sword rips trough the space like silk” (or The Force becomes our ally), is not going to be reached in a couple of years, and 365 pictures will likely not make us drastically better photographers. In my case, I will report back in about 20 years whether the one-million’s cut was any different from the first…

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