Uses of Practices

by John S. James

Why do most people have significant difficulties relating to others -- despite hours of experience every day in doing so? One reason is that we usually leave this critically important learning to chance. Our society knows how to focus its talents on technology, business, sports, and mass entertainment -- much better than on the less glamorous but more important area of our personal relationships with each other.

But a few families, organizations, towns, college classes, or other scenes produce disproportionately many highly successful individuals -- mostly in ways nobody understands. What seems to be happening is that effective methods of learning, being, and doing are developed and communicated (often unconsciously) among people who work together or otherwise associate with each other. But usually they cannot tell us much about how they are doing it, so their success cannot easily be shared with the larger public.

We learn life skills (and technical or other skills as well) in two basic ways: through organized programs such as classes, books, and other training methods, and through life experience. Both kinds of learning have advantages and disadvantages. For example, organized programs have high overhead -- such as expensive college tuition, or on-the-job training where it may take months to schedule a five or 10 hour session, resulting in slow progress.

Learning through experience does not have this overhead; we learn full time, through whatever we are already doing anyway. But there's another problem: Because we seldom talk about the specifics, we seldom compare what works and what does not, let alone design better ways of learning through life experience. Instead, each of us is left to find his or her own way, for better or worse; some do well but some do badly, and there hasn't been much anyone could do to help them.

Imagine a way to combine the best of both kinds of learning: a social movement to collect and develop powerful training methods available any time to help us become more effective in what we do -- at work, in our personal lives and communities, and in building a better world. We suggest a kind of training we call "practices" -- methods which use daily life itself as the only resource they need, and which integrate training exercises and life tools in exactly the same actions. Therefore you can use practices any time, with no need to wait for equipment, money, classes, permission, free time, or even an instructor -- building interpersonal and leadership skills at your own pace, whether you are rich or poor, busy or not, oppressed or free.


The different advantages of these two kinds of learning (organized programs, vs. life experience) might be combined through organized training methods which are integrated with everyday life. Then we could learn new skills quickly because we could get hours of practice whenever we wanted to, without needing to find time in our busy schedules. There would be no overhead, no need for money, special equipment, or other advantages, since everyday life is the only resource required.

We already have all this when learning through life experience. But organized collecting and development of everyday-life training methods would also allow us to discuss and compare what works and what doesn't, select the best ideas from anywhere, and test them systematically to improve them further -- vs. the traditional way which offers at best some folk wisdom (such as advising someone to treat a defeat or other reversal which has already occurred as "a learning experience").

Note that the word "practice" has two meanings -- a learning exercise (for example, a student's piano practice), or the everyday work of a professional (for example, the practice of medicine). Here we combine the meanings to produce a learning exercise which is always a natural part of life, never an artificial, throwaway drill.

We also define "practices" as requiring no material resources or special settings, other than the human interactions of everyday life. For example, it's not a "practice" if notes, writing materials, a video, a computer, a class, or even an instructor, must be there (although these may be used in advance, to teach what the practice is). This restriction makes practices harder to design -- but then able to go anywhere.

Practices could be used in many kinds of education; here we focus on communication practices for learning interpersonal and relationship skills. Communication practices are always used while you are interacting with (or at least observing) other people -- yet you can start this work individually, as a personal project, without needing to wait for others to get on board. (Practices could also be designed for use by a team or community working together.)

How is this different from what happens already? It's not different; our personal lives and social institutions are largely made up of practices, and we already learn communication skills from them. But usually we learn these skills in one of two ways: either by happenstance, with little organized thought and design -- or in formal, expensive classes, seminars, therapy, or other training programs. Could we build a third way of learning -- discussing, collecting, designing, and using educational practices, as a grassroots social movement?

Everybody already learns "people skills" through personal experience. But this all-important learning might be improved by organized efforts which mobilize the talents of leaders and experts to create highly effective training methods designed to be integrated with almost any activity which involves human interaction.

Some Potential Applications

(1) Today most people have relationship problems which are likely to remain with them throughout their lives, despite the efforts of parents and teachers, therapists, counselors of all sorts, self-improvement and advice books, etc. That's because the most important learning is through everyday life experience, which today is left largely to chance; some people do well at it, and some don't. Organized intervention usually focuses on "problems" -- an inefficient way to make progress. And our informal self-education usually focuses on the areas where we do well--which can result in uneven development and permanent areas of weakness.

Imagine a different kind of education which does not focus on the problems, but instead looks for strategic opportunities in everyday life to develop and eventually master certain human-interaction skills -- in casual, unemotional situations which allow exploration, since nothing major is at stake. Because this work is low-stress, does not require taking time out from other activities, and does not require any money, equipment, or classes, people can train almost any time (even if their schedule is already full), building skills quickly. As success patterns develop, the new skills become second nature -- and available in more central, difficult, or otherwise consequential relationships and activities.

(2) Today homelessness seems intractable in the U.S. (although somehow it's much less common in other rich countries). Homeless people spend hours sitting on benches, waiting in line for services, and otherwise passing time in ways that build few or no skills, so tomorrow they are no better prepared than today. Meanwhile, organized programs to help them get their lives back together are blocked by the lack of funding and political will in local and national governments

Often these people have hours of free time, but they are trapped because their immediate situation offers few workable opportunities for using it well. Perhaps they can go to a library, but how many of us could read our way out of homelessness and into employment? Jobs, job leads, and job skills usually come through people and institutions -- which seldom want the homeless around

What if homeless people also had access to human-interaction and team-building training methods they could use on the street -- developed just for them by top experts, including those who "have been there," skilled professionals, natural leaders, artists who choose to work in this medium (creating training methods), teams which compete to see whose practices can produce the best results, and others who may be able contribute. Then while waiting in line, or while in custody, or while doing the often-pointless errands required to get by, they can also be learning skills which will help them immediately, and throughout life

This university of the street will cost essentially nothing, since no equipment or classes are needed -- so it won't be held up by lack of funding. Instead, the training methods can be designed to spread from person to person (and through the Web, books and articles, entertainment, and other popular media).

(3) Other examples could be cited: the student in high-school hell; the employee wasting years in a dead-end job he or she cannot leave; the otherwise-successful adult who has never been close to people. In each of these cases and many others, millions are affected. Why shouldn't they have the benefit of the best possible training and skills-building programs designed specifically for them by leading professionals, artists, and other leaders in all areas of life?

Imagine the potential of high-quality training which is world class, always free, available any time no matter what else one is doing, and open to all people regardless of their station in life. We are proposing a grassroots movement to develop such training, without waiting for institutions or professionals to do so.


This training doesn't require any money -- taking the whole activity outside of the money system and avoiding the ubiquitous problem of getting top-quality services for the poor as well as the affluent.

Since this training is integrated with whatever one is doing anyway, and is almost always low-stress, it can be used almost any time, regardless of how busy one already is -- allowing rapid skill development.

This work is entirely voluntary, respecting individual autonomy. No one else need know what practices you are doing. You can be your own person, with or without permission, and build skills to escape a bad environment if necessary.

Work, play, errands, waiting time, and other activities can all contribute to an integrated program of personal education and skills development.

This movement needs no "critical mass" before it can begin -- so you can start any time, without waiting for others. (But as more people contribute their talents and skills, better practices will be developed.)

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