Let’s turn “practice makes perfect” on its head. Instead, practice, the art of exercising a skill repeatedly, may not lead to perfection but to maturity, i.e., seeing life as it is. I’m thinking about something other than skill development in sports or music, for example, but instead, life practices that foster well-being. The yogic tradition speaks to living skillfully. Neuroscientific research supports the link between well-being as a skill strengthened by outlook, attention, resilience and generosity. How do we practice looking positively for the good in ourselves, others, and life? Often by the example of a life well lived.
My mother, Mai Bell Hurley would be 90 if she were living today. A trailblazer in her hometown, Chattanooga, she was the first woman elected to city government about 30 years ago at my current age. At the time I thought how extraordinary to enter elected office at such an old age!
I no longer think that.
Because Mom had many firsts as a woman in civic and elected leadership, occasionally reporters will ask me about that. Recently, on Martin Luther King Day, I received such a call. What would my mother think about women emerging in Congress, as Presidential candidates, and the like? She’d be pleased. What stories did she tell about being slighted or patronized? None that she shared. How would she advise young women today? Here’s what she might say.
Never give in to your limitations. Mom’s first job was reporting for the Chattanooga News Free Press. Filling in for the music critic one night, she attended a symphony concert. When her high school teacher, Mrs. Tucker, saw her former student taking notes, Mrs. Tucker asked what she was doing. When Mai Bell explained, Mrs. Tucker replied, “You never did know your limitations.” And she didn’t.
Always say yes. There was very little Mai Bell wasn’t willing to do from setting up tables for the first art festival to running for City Council. There was no job too small or too big if it interested her.
Show up. A lot of life is about showing up and Mom started out doing just that. Granted, she really enjoyed meetings – the relationships made, the intellect required, the work done. But her rise to leadership did not happen overnight. Be dependable, smart, and steadfast early on.
One thing leads to another. It’s not possible to have everything mapped out. She trusted, believed, had faith…however it can be cast and was comfortable living with ambiguity.
Never stop learning. Enjoy an insatiable curiosity about art, literature, child welfare, affordable housing, economics, you name it. Learn from books, news, the internet…and ask lots of questions of everyone. And listen to the answers.
Keep your ego in check. It’s so hard to do that. I remember when I was in my 20s pushing Mom to be a little less self-deprecating. She really had this “aw, shucks” way of being when attention came her way. But Mai Bell operated in a man’s world and traditional gender roles were very clear. She would often be the only woman in the room. Undoubtedly, she disarmed many with her unassuming manner. She’d qualify her question, saying she wasn’t quite sure she understood something correctly and then show an immediate grasp of the matter at hand.
Always start with people. Who could be helpful here? Who would be right for this job? Who will lend a hand? As her friend Rick Montague said, “Mai Bell had a vision for the community that is like that of a great gardener who knows how to coax and orchestrate the best blooms out of every plant.” And, to continue with this gardening metaphor, Mom rarely saw weeds. She really believed in including as many people as she could who would join her.
Do what you love. There is not one way to craft a life. There is much good work out there for all, ways to enrich, lift up and support our communities and each other.