The answer is either almost never (if you want to hate yourself) or almost always (the more correct answer).

I used to believe in ‘ideal conditions’ – e.g. the ideal condition for practicing violin is when no one else is home and I don’t have to play in the creepy basement, or the ideal condition for studying physics is Saturday morning at a library carrel with a view of downtown Philadelphia. As an adult, I still catch myself superstitiously thinking about ideal conditions, but I’m starting to outgrow them.

Thinking about ideal conditions is essentially mysticism. The first instance I remember overcoming it was practicing running the first summer I lived in NYC. Prior to this, I was a timid runner, and so I usually exercised… at the gym (gasp! how embarrassing, right?). When preparing for a run, my thoughts would be a mix of practical concerns (“Have I hydrated enough today?”), organizational dilemmas (“Can I comfortably hold my wallet and my phone if I use my too-small pocket for my keys?”), and outright absurd fears (“What if I pass out in the middle of Central Park and can’t find the nearest subway?”). Before I dedicated myself to running that summer, it was rare I ever ran outside, because conditions were rarely ideal.

After running outside for many miles and not encountering any dire circumstances, I realized that conditions are almost always good enough to go running. Not to say there aren’t ideal days (my best run ever started in Riverside Park and ended with getting lost around the north end of Central Park during a light rain), but the threshold for “good enough” is so miserably low that only circumstances like major illness or injury should prevent one from going for a run.

Skating

I figured out how to do a lutz sometime around February. And then I forgot how to do it. Then I remembered. Then forgot.

I recently noticed that because of the variability, I’d started composing a list of conditions that seemed necessary for me to be able to manage it at any one practice session – whether I had a day off from skating the day before, how awake I felt, etc. Furthermore, I realized that this list kept me from practicing the lutz, because I’d assess how awake and well-rested I felt and decide in many instances that I wouldn’t bother.

But this is silly. The lutz is not easy, but I also know it’s within my capabilities. I know that even when I’m exhausted, I can jump up and make a full turn in the air, so I’m not without the energy to practice the lutz. Today I managed to land it eventually – not smoothly and naturally in a way that feels easy, but this ironically makes me feel a little better about it, because I’m recognizing it as a challenge of arranging my body correctly rather than a confluence of magical conditions.

Programming

I’ve resumed programming as a practice (instead of as a job) because I’m currently unemployed again (yay for free time! and eek for job-searching!). The co-founders of the company I was at decided to shrink back down to the two of them, so I’m actually facing technical interviews for the first time ever. I feel like I’m getting my comeuppance for sidling into my first programming job without interviewing at all.

It’s not superstitious of me to assert that I think best in the mornings; however, it is silly when I put off working on difficult algorithms for the sole reason that it’s after 6pm. I’ve noticed that when I properly commit to working on a difficult problem in the evenings, one of two outcomes arises – either I end up solving the problem and deciding it wasn’t that difficult after all, or I go to bed deciding it’s difficult but find it easier the next day.

In Conclusion

I find that it helps to hold two beliefs in my head to overcome the desire for ideal conditions:

  1. The outcome of practicing doesn’t matter. When I’m in a specific instance of practicing, it’s easy to start thinking that I’m on a path to something, and that the results in practice have consequences for how well I can eventually accomplish my goal. But that’s not really true, and I can only practice well when I believe that the results don’t matter. Try and fail at the lutz? Doesn’t matter, it’s just one attempt and the bruise will go away eventually.
  2. My goal is within my capabilities. Persevering through uncertainty is possible and can lead to good things, but it can also lead to wasted time and overlooking better things to do. Plus persevering through certainty is easier, so I try to believe in certainty whenever possible – i.e. “with practice, I’m 100% sure I can achieve X.” With skating challenges, I remind myself that as a healthy adult, I’m not nearing my physical limitations at all. With programming challenges, I remind myself that I’m a smart person with a stellar IQ and SAT scores (embarrassing to admit, but it really helps).

If you check the date of my previous blog post, you’ll notice that I’m also an ideal-conditions blogger – unwilling to post unless a wide range of conditions are met (I have to believe the writing is simultaneously high quality, fully considered, interesting, and non-offensive). I don’t know if I care enough about blogging to dedicate myself to a writing practice, but if I do, I’ll apologize in advance for the plethora of low-quality, half-formed, boring and offensive posts to come.