The Practicing Mind

"All things of lasting and deep value require time and nurturing and come to us only through our own effort."

- The Practicing Mind, Chapter 9

From a young age we learn the importance of paying attention: in school, while learning to drive, when someone is speaking to us. However, as adults the emphasis on attention to what we are doing right now decreases. Many people wear multitasking as a badge of pride. Rather than focusing on what we are doing, we pine away the present moment wishing we were doing something else. Wishing it was the weekend, or the end of the day. However, focusing and paying attention to the task at hand isn’t just something to raise well behaved children, regardless of age you can benefit from developing such a focused state of mind.

Thomas Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind, prepares pianos for world class performances. His craft requires minute tunings of each of the 88 notes on a piano. Every adjustment must be made to each of the 88 strings resulting in thousands of identical repetitive actions, a task that most would consider tedious and a perfect reason to tune out. With that background Sterner makes a compelling case for why everyone can benefit from what he calls a practicing mind, and it all begins with a chariot rider.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Take Back the Reins

"We need to be more aware of what we are doing, what we are thinking, and what we are intending to accomplish in order to gain control of what we experience in life."
- The Practicing Mind, Chapter 4

As you read the last paragraph how many times were you thinking about something other than what you were reading? My question isn’t rooted in deep seeded narcissism but rather to prove a point, one that rocked my paradigm as I began to process Sterner’s book. The idea, for instance, is that I may physically be in class, but am I really there? Am I striving to focus on what is being said and digesting the information I am learning? Or am I thinking about what I’ll have for dinner, or the book I am reading, or that trip I am going on this weekend?

It is difficult to maintain a present mindset, to be focused on now when you are contemplating several other tasks that need to be completed or day dreaming about what you would rather be doing than what you are presently doing.

Sterner defines a practicing mind as one who is focused on the process and the present moment. The author repeatedly emphasizes the importance of staying in the present as the foundation for a practicing mind.  He illustrates this point with an analogy of the mind to a chariot driver. The driver has lost the reins and become a passenger, at the mercy of his horses.  Similarly, an individual who does not take the reins of their mind will be tossed to-and-fro and will lack direction. In contrast, Sterner explains that by focusing on what one is doing now, at any given time he can take back the reins and direct the direction of the chariot.

Now that you are back in control of the reins, where to?

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Focus on the Process

"So many people ... look at the process of working for something as an annoying effort they have to go through to get what they want. They make the thing the goal, instead of the process of getting that thing. Just getting the thing produces a very small return on investment of inner joy compared with the dividend gleaned from the process of getting there and achieving the goal. The key word here is achieving. Getting the goal and achieving it are worlds apart. Most people spend their lives on an endless treadmill: they get one thing after another, but they get no experience of lasting joy or personal growth..."
- The Practicing Mind, Chapter 5

At first it may seem a semantical difference to focus on the process in place of the product. To distinguish the ideas Sterner uses the example of a sailor attempting to reach the horizon. If the sailor uses the horizon as his benchmark for achievement he will forever be disappointed. Despite his most valiant efforts he will always fall short. Instead, if the sailor elected to focus on the sailing of the ship and evaluated his success by that gauge, if he stays in the present moment, his odds of achieving his purpose increase greatly.

What do you use as your metric for success? It is not the process of signing a big new client, but the process and effort you invested to win the account. It is not the graduation ceremony and piece of paper but the process of expanding your mind and developing your abilities over the course of your education that make it a rewarding experience.

Strive to achieve and focus on the process.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Enjoy the Journey

"Do you think that a flower seed sits in the ground and says, ‘This is going to take forever. I have to push all this dirt out of my way just to get to the surface and see the sun... When do I get to bloom? That's when I'll be happy; that's when everybody will be impressed with me.’"
- The Practicing Mind, Chapter 3

Life is too short to waste the present longing for the future. What frequent things in your life do you fail to notice and enjoy because you are not present? For me, I am able to walk my wife to work on my way to class. That is something I probably will not always be able to do. If I only concentrate on graduation (the goal) I miss an event that when noticed makes the present more enjoyable. By striving to be present and focusing on the process, enjoying the journey becomes more realistic.

To teach this concept Sterner explains that a flower is doing exactly what it should be at each stage of its life. “Just because it does not have brightly colored blooms doesn’t mean it is not a good flower seed. When it first sprouts through the ground, it is not imperfect because it displays only the color green.” The growth of a flower follows a process in which each stage must be completed before the next can begin; it must sprout as a seed long before it can begin to bloom. We should adopt a similar approach to any endeavor in our lives.


I had a difficult time digesting this book. The author’s repeated admonitions for focusing on the here and now, and the process, for me, spotlighted how many times during the day I wasn’t present and fixated on the end result enduring the process. So I made a deliberate effort to evaluate at the end of each activity. It is easy to stifle the ambition to be present once the topic or task turns to something I find less than uninteresting. Resisting the urge to let my mind drift to something more interesting left me taxed by the end of the first day. However, with a consistent effort I found it less strenuous by the end of my experiment. Curiously, through a spillover effect, the attention directed to the process and the current moment has made the things I enjoy doing more engaging.

Thanks for reading and hopefully being present.

How could being present help you?

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Jakob Browning

ABOUT Jakob Browning

I am Jakob Browning. This fall I'll start my final year of law school. I enjoy running long distances. I have three younger brothers who will all probably be taller than me soon...
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