A Successful Daily Practice Requires Honesty

Image: illustration of a man staring into a hand mirror, ignoring the passage of time

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from The Power of Daily Practice: How Creative and Performing Artists (and Everyone Else) Can Finally Meet Their Goals by creativity coach Dr. Eric Maisel (@ericmaisel), run with permission from New World Library.


Your daily practice demands honesty. If you play a passage on your musical instrument and it isn’t strong yet, you are honest enough to say, “This isn’t strong yet.” You don’t then berate yourself, pester yourself, rail at the gods, or create any other sort of inner or outer drama. You just calmly say, “Not strong yet.” Then you practice more.

If you skip too many days without attending to your new start-up business, you are honest and say, “I skipped too many days.” You don’t then also lament, “I’ve wasted so many days!” or “Now I have no chance!” or “I missed that golden opportunity!” You nod to the truth—that you skipped days you shouldn’t have—and proceed with some simple affirmation, like “Right here, right now” or “Back to work.” And you get to work.

Being 80 percent honest or 90 percent honest is lovely and a pretty high bar for human beings. But you and I are actually aiming for 100 percent honesty. We are aiming this implausibly high because that tricky, untruthful 10 percent or 20 percent can scuttle our ship. One blind spot, one area of denial, one little white lie the size of an elephant, and our practice may not survive.

Imagine a general honestly admitting that her troops need more training and then increasing their training. Good for her. Imagine her honestly admitting that their rifles jam too often and getting them better weapons. Good for her. But imagine her refusing to acknowledge the enemy’s air superiority. For all the honesty that she managed to muster, she will likely lose the war.

That last 10 percent is often the hardest to admit because it is the hard truth. That general can admit that her troops need more training, because she can do something about that. She can admit that their rifles jam too often, because she can do something about that too. But what if there is nothing she can do about the enemy’s air superiority? Many a mortal will be inclined to refuse to look that hard truth in the eye.

Take a memoir writer with a daily writing practice. Maybe she has faced the truth that her siblings will be upset with her for writing about them and made peace with the fact that they will be angry. Maybe she has faced the truth that she will be revealing embarrassing family secrets and made peace with that. Maybe she has faced the truth that she herself doesn’t come off that well and has made peace with that. But what if she hasn’t quite admitted that she is physically afraid of her ex-husband and dreads him reading it? Not facing that last hard truth is likely to cause her not to write.

She should rightly congratulate herself for dealing with all those truths she did acknowledge. That took a lot of courage. But she mustn’t let herself off the hook with respect to the last one. That one must be faced also, not out of a moral imperative, but because if she doesn’t admit it and deal with it one way or another, she’s unlikely to get her memoir written. And that will deeply disappoint her.

I think you can see that honesty of practice requires that we face many hard truths, not just one or two. Take a yoga practice. You may have to face the truth that on some days it bores you. You may have to face the truth that certain positions are actually injuring you. You may have to face the truth that, as you’d intended to start a yoga business, you don’t need more training but, rather, the courage to start a business. You may have to face many other truths as well. Each of them is its own knotty problem, its own taxing challenge.

Be honest about whether you are attending to your daily practice enough. Be honest about whether you are creating dramas so as to avoid your practice. Be honest about whether you are truly engaged with your practice or just going through the motions. Be honest about whether you tend to leave your practice too soon. Be altogether honest: anything less jeopardizes your daily practice.

Consider Larry, an established inventor and engineer. Larry set as his daily practice the study of a certain aspect of artificial intelligence. He loved the problem he set for himself and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting to his practice regularly. He spent a lot of time thinking about it, journaling about it, and chatting online about it with other AI specialists. Finally, it came to him.

“I’ve known this all along,” he explained to me, “but I’ve kept it hidden away so that I wouldn’t have to face it. The truth is, it scares me where AI will lead. Just go see the movie Ex Machina. I love AI as an intellectual puzzle, but I actually hate where it may take us. What am I supposed to do about something that I’m so completely invested in and that I also despise?”

With that cat out of the bag, Larry had no choice but to give up his intellectual passion for AI. A few months later he began a very different sort of daily practice: writing a book exposing the dangers of AI. In his heart of hearts, he wished that he had never admitted that truth to himself. But he also knew that the truth was going to win out eventually. If it hadn’t, it’s very likely that Larry would have found himself unable to complete anything.

Food for Thought

  1. Discuss the role of honesty in daily practice, as you see it.
  2. Is there some area you already know you had better be more honest about?
  3. Discuss the difference between being “rather honest” and being “totally honest.”

Note from Jane: if you enjoyed this excerpt, check out Dr. Eric Maisel’s The Power of Daily Practice: How Creative and Performing Artists (and Everyone Else) Can Finally Meet Their Goals.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than fifty books on creativity and personal growth, including The Power of Daily Practice. Widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach, he is a retired family therapist and a noted leader in the movement known as critical psychology. He writes the Rethinking Mental Health blog for Psychology Today and facilitates creativity and deep writing workshops around the world. He lives in Walnut Creek, California. Find out more about his work at EricMaisel.com.

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