Practice Makes Perfect, Revisited
We’ve written before on what is generally called “talent,” which most people seem to define as some sort of innate skill that, if properly trained, can result in excellence. But in our article, which relied heavily on the research of Anders Ericsson, we presented a slightly different definition of talent. Here’s one key paragraph:
“I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.
The main idea of our column is that “talent” is overrated; that practice really does make perfect; and that it’s a good idea to do what you truly love in life, because if you don’t, you probably won’t work hard enough at it to get really good.
I was reminded of all this recently while looking through the Summer 2006 issue of Daedalus. As with every issue, this one had a theme, which was “On Body in Mind.” It included a wonderful essay by Jacques d’Amboise (born Joseph Ahearn, btw), best known in his youth as a star dancer in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and later known as a choreographer and founder of the National Dance Institute. Here is how d’Amboise, now 72 years old, recalled getting his body and mind working together:
Early in the morning or on my days off, I sit in the empty auditorium, gazing at the stage. I am envisioning a variation from my repertoire, imagining, in detail, first how I will look in costume, then how I will enter the stage and from which wing. As if watching a movie, I then dance the variation in my mind the very best that I can, or even better — the leaps a foot higher, the space covered double what I have done in the past. I picture the expression on my face, the use of my arms and hands, and the speed at which I move. …
At first, I run this imaginary film to rhythmic counting alone (without music, melody, theme, harmony, etc.) — creating a blueprint of mathematical time. For example, I launch into a leap on the first count (or beat), float through the second and third counts, and land noiselessly on the fourth. Next, I rerun these movements, adding, in my head, the melody of the music in place of the counts. Each of these processes I repeat multiple times.
Now I am ready to make the imagined concrete. Up on the stage, I rehearse what I have envisioned — step by step, count by count, without music, over and over again. Sometimes I spend as much as two hours on a dance sequence that is perhaps one-and-a-half minutes long. During these repetitions, I count the beats out loud as I dance, even rehearsing how I will breathe. I also practice the dance movements in three different tempos: slow motion, ideal, and accelerated (in case the orchestra conductor has an adrenaline rush during the performance). I am now prepared to handle any tempo that may emanate from the orchestra pit.
Now keep in mind that this is how d’Amboise prepared when he was already a huge star. Practice makes perfect indeed.
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Sometimes, there’s nothing worse than having it all figured out. You’re doing it day in and day out, and have been doing it for so long now that it’s second nature. You don’t even have to think about the mechanics of it. You know the phrases. “I can do this in my sleep,” “with one arm tied behind my back,” “flying on autopilot.”
But what if there is a better way?
They say that practice makes perfect. That is a myth and all kinds of wrong. What practice makes is permanent. What you do, day in and day out, defines who you are and determines your results. There are reasons why you want to feel competent at what you do, reasons why you want and need activities you can do on autopilot.
These are the things that, through daily repetition, people practice. But, in fact, the act of doing something over and over doesn’t ultimately move anyone toward perfection. It leads into a point of permanence, where you do what you do the same way, every day. If it’s not being done perfectly from the outset, it’s not approaching perfection. Be wary not to habitualize the mundane.
Do You Have All the Information?
You will encounter those who (good intentioned or not), stand in your way. They may block, misdirect or withhold key information. Without this, of course, you can’t perform at an optimal level. You may not even know what that level is, or through omission, know how to arrive at the destination.
It could be something as simple as a single instruction, or it could come through a fundamental lack of understanding. This is where you need to trust your gut. When you know the outcome isn’t what it could be, don’t be content to meet that outcome. Ask questions. In particular, ask why. Why is it done this way? Why are you not addressing that process or concern?
One of the drawbacks of experience is that those second-nature elements lose their resolution and the details fall through the cracks. It may simply be a key overlooked point that you are no longer consciously thinking about. When something doesn’t make sense, it’s probably because that linking element is missing. Recognize your doubt as a sign of an incomplete picture and chase down the piece you’re missing. Get it right before making it permanent.
The Comfort of Learned Knowledge
There’s a reason people fall back on the familiar; that they practice what they always practice. It’s comfortable. It’s meant to be comfortable. It starts in the physiology of their brains. Those things you know, that you’ve been doing for a long time, exist in your brain as established neural pathways. When you perform familiar tasks, these pathways kick in and take over.
By contrast, learning new skills happens elsewhere in the brain. In the same part where emotions live, where the fight or flight response originates. New situations are stressful. It’s what puts your brain up at the top of the consciousness chain. Faced with new stimuli, you process, analyze, deduce and ultimately solve or contain the problem you are facing. As the process progresses, that knowledge becomes hardwired. You practice your responses and make them permanent.
Consider a toddler experiencing a candle for the first time. The dancing flame delights him. His learning skills are based around senses. He see the flame and instinctively wants to touch, taste, smell and hear the flame, and reaches for it.
You know what’s going to happen, right? You’ve built those neural paths and you know that your hands should be kept at a comfortable distance from the flame. The toddler, however, is amassing knowledge and has not yet connected the flame with pain and danger. But once burned, that information is hardwired immediately amidst significant turmoil and trauma depending on how badly the toddler was burned. Thereafter, he retreats to the comfort and safety of avoiding flames.
Increased Comfort and the Learning Process
You can’t move close to a seemingly hopeless deadline without distress. People practice their emotional states too, whether they go deliberately or not, working towards its permanence. This is why you feel uneasy about a forthcoming exam in school, no matter how well you know the material. Talk around the cafeteria creates the impression that exam time is high-stress, and when students commiserate, they reinforce their own distress.
Yet, once you’re familiar and comfortable with the information or methodology, it’s increasingly difficult to feel that distress without something triggering the emotional state. Learned responses are stored in a different part of the brain. As you process new information, it’s tied physically to an emotional response. After learning, it’s hard wired away from emotions.
That’s where the cool, calm “do it in your sleep” feeling comes from. You’re supposed to be more comfortable with familiar tasks. As you know, comfort is good, but it’s also complacent and often unexamined. It’s practice making permanent in a literal sense. Your brain hardwires your response.
The Illusion of Perfection
If you’re not obtaining perfect goals, that doesn’t mean that everything you’re doing is wrong. It may mean you’re missing a key piece of information (like the toddler above). There may be something off in your process or timing, but it’s very unlikely you are a complete failure at what you’re doing.
When you feel that unease, that discomfort from not achieving your vision of success, your brain is actively seeking new information, solutions to the disparity between reality and vision. It’s a normal part of who you are.
You decide what you do with that feeling. You can ignore it. Perhaps you bake cookies or binge watch five seasons of Game of Thrones or apply yourself to other parts of business that don’t cause distress. Or you face the unease, looking for the piece of the puzzle that unifies where you are with where you want to be.
You learn through repetition. Some people need to do something 100 times before they construct the synapses necessary to move knowledge and skill to that comfortable part of their brains. Some need only five repetitions. Many need 5,000 repetitions, most of the time, at least for the things that matter, the things that don’t come so easy, yet are desired so much.
Sometimes that’s how close success really is. You may be just one piece of information or one more moment of perseverance away.
Elizabeth McCormickis a keynote speaker, author, and authority on leadership. A former U.S. Army Black Hawk Pilot, she is the bestselling author of her personal development book, “The P.I.L.O.T. Method; the 5 Elemental Truths to Leading Yourself in Life.” Elizabeth teaches real life, easy to apply strategies to boost your employees’ confidence in the vision of your organization and their own leadership abilities.
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