As Friday’s post mentioned, virtue education is not effectively accomplished in a liberal arts classroom education. It requires what the foremost expert on excellence, Anders Ericsson, called deliberate practice. One of the keys Ericsson found to deliberate practice in a particular endeavor is to improve one’s mental representations. He defines a mental representations as “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract that the brain is thinking about.”1 For example, when a diver is learning a new dive, they try to form a mental representation.
Yet, there is one important thing to realize about such representations: “they are very ‘domain specific’ that is they apply only to the skill for which they were developed.”2 Or as Ericsson notes later, “there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train to become an athlete, you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player.”3 The same could be said for music, different kinds of art, professions and of course, virtue. You do not simply become loving in general. You must train to become a loving spouse, parent, neighbor, professor, enemy, caretaker of nature, etc. One must learn to exercise and habituate these virtues in particular domains and identities in order to build specific mental representations.
What makes someone excellent at something is “the quality and quantity of their mental representations.” 4 To be specific, I will use my wife an example. Ask anyone and they will tell you that she is an expert in the virtue of service. Honed by her Christian faith, growing up with a physically and mentally handicapped older brother, and her professional education and work as a nurse, she sees needs, feels the moral imperative of meeting them, and most importantly, acts toward meeting those needs in ways that most others simply do not. She has more sophisticated mental representations related to serving.
She also knows how to sharpen them for better service actions. For example, for her women’s Bible study, she recently asked all the women to fill out a list of their favorite things (e.g., food, flower, book, etc.). She wanted to sharpen her service to them (as a side note, she gets a bit frustrated when her boys or husband don’t express specific preferences about certain things because it makes her expert service harder).
Understood in this way, we should realize that both virtue and vice are identity domain specific. We may love our spouse and children well but hate our colleagues. We may avoid gossip at church or home but be an astute practitioner of gossip at work.
The importance of mental representations is why we need wisdom and the coaches who have it to engage in deliberate practice (and often why academics are not very good at providing it). Wisdom is neither rules nor behavioral virtues, but the knowledge that comes from excellent study and practice. This kind of expert knowledge is the kind acquired by someone who has observed and practiced in the field for some time. Someone who has played and observed basketball for years can often predict whether a player will make a three-point shot by looking at the mechanics of a shot, or whether the shot was taken after receiving a pass from a certain place on the floor and in a certain rhythm of the game.5
Of course, depending on the level of expertise, sometimes this advice is more mundane. When I was in tenth grade, I was playing a game of two on two. My partner was our 6’5’’ center who was guarded by my 5’10’’ brother. I kept trying to pass to our center using bounce passes. Bounce passes are a key virtue of the game I had learned through practice. They are also obviously not against the rules. Yet, as my quick brother continually stole my bounce passes, my coach finally came over and told me to start feeding the ball to my playing partner at the highest point of his out-stretched arm where my brother could not reach it.
This was rather simple wisdom, but I still needed to hear it, since my continual errors were making us lose the pick-up game. More importantly, I needed to develop the virtue of learning how to pass to big men in the post. Under the guidance of my coach, I soon gained expertise in lob passes to our big men down low, so they could catch the ball and shoot in one motion because I had placed the ball in the exact place that allowed them to shoot the highest percentage shot in rhythm.
Similarly, I remember reading how Phil Jackson was coaching the Los Angeles Lakers during their many championship years with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and how he predicted during practices whether a player would make or miss the shot based on where the pass was given to the shooter. Studies of the most successful basketball coach in college history, John Wooden, found that the majority of his instruction involved imparting this kind of wisdom.6 He rarely said, “Good job” (the typical comment of an inexperienced youth league coach who makes up for a lack of wisdom with enthusiasm), since he was too busy providing wisdom. We expect coaches or mentors to possess this type of wisdom.
If one examines the autobiographies of great athletes, one finds that even at the pinnacle of success in their sport, the greatest athletes in the world still needed coaches to provide them with the wisdom to perfect their practice. This wisdom is the feedback that may help a person get outside their comfort zone—thereby fulfilling two other elements necessary for deliberate practice. Receiving feedback is uncomfortable because it often requires us to change our habits, but when we get outside our comfort zone, we have the capacity to practice and play at another level.
The same proves true with any other human practice such as marriage, friendship, or being a good citizen. In marriage, we have to acquire a similar type of wisdom, often through coaches to help with deliberate practice. This type of wisdom may involve figuring out how to love your spouse in unique ways. Does loving one’s spouse mean planning special gifts, vacations, times together, meals, etc.? It may involve breaking through a particular type of communication or conflict pattern that seems to come about no matter how often you try to avoid it. At some points, you may need a mentor or coach to help you.
What should be clear is that this kind of pursuit of deliberate practice is much different than sitting around a classroom discussing case studies of difficult moral dilemmas within one’s profession. Once again, the setting or practice venue proves important.7 Studying basketball in a classroom is not always helpful (although film study under a wise coach can help). Furthermore, if one plays basketball on an outdoor court all of one’s life and then suddenly has to adjust to an inside arena with fans, one’s practice will not have been as effective.
The same thing is true in the moral life. It should be no surprise that the major source of character growth among college students comes from their roommates. As one student shared, she had to learn about love in this specific context:
My experience with my suitemate was very difficult, because she would almost use being a Christian against me….There were times she’d be like, “If you’re not mean to me I’ll probably go to church with you again.” And I was just like, “Well, I want her to go to church with me again but like she’s being incredibly mean to me, and all I’m asking is for her to not sleep in my bed when I’m in class or not steal my Capri Suns.”
…And so that was a very difficult time morally of like, “What is the right thing to do? Because on the one hand like I am supposed to be showing Christ and His love to everyone around me but at the same time she is using the fact that she knows I need to do that to hurt me and do things to me.
A lived challenge is much better than a textbook challenge.
In fact, this student went on to note that the challenge related more to her will, “If someone gave me that situation as a hypothetical I would be like, ‘Yes this is the right thing; this is what you do.’” Yet, she concluded,“[L]iving through it in those moments was really difficult and filled me with a lot of doubt if I’m being honest. Because I know the way I know I should live is the way that it’s hurting me right now. And I really just struggled a lot with, ‘How do I treat this person who’s hurting me?’”
Certainly experiencing such moral challenges versus talking about them in a case study in an ethics class proves much more memorable, challenging and educational. She was in the process of learning deliberate practice of love in a specific context. She also needed the help of mentors and coaches with wisdom, such as the Holy Spirit, spiritual directors, etc., to give her guidance and support about whether she was enabling vice. That’s one reason love is a fruit of the Spirit. We always need that ultimate mentor to provide us specific forms of mentoring wisdom to develop Christian virtue.
- Ericsson and Pool, Peak, 58.
- Ericsson and Pool, Peak, 60.
- Ericsson and Pool, Peak, 60.
- Ericsson and Pool, Peak, 62.
- For more examples see Ericsson and Pool, Peak.
- Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp, “What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanlysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices,” The Sports Psychologist 19, no. 2 (2004): 119-137.
- For a good example of how one might apply this to excellence as a student see Rafe Esquith, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (New York: Viking, 2007).