“Practice makes perfect.” – Unknown
Or does it?
We’re told that with thousands of hours of ‘deliberate’ practice, meaning practicing the same thing repeatedly, we can become experts. Well, tell that to my old soccer team.
I was new to soccer and especially bad at it, but some of the players on the team had been practicing and playing soccer for 12 years. And yet, they weren’t very good. In truth, they were terrible. Their kicks were weak and inaccurate, and they were awkward with the ball. These were players who had spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours practicing soccer. They practiced the same skill repeatedly. And yet, they never seemed to improve. We lost every game we played!
They were passionate and dedicated and loved soccer, but it didn’t help. Somehow, in 12 years of practice and playing, no coach had ever taught them the correct way to strike a ball, or control it.
When we practiced, we were only getting better at doing things the wrong way. Every training session we burned bad habits and bad technique into our muscle memory. We became experts at playing soccer badly.
Repetition isn’t enough
I’m a firm adherent to the belief that anyone can become expertly skillful at anything, if they practice intelligently. But it’s not enough to practice with repetition – to take 500 free-throws, or write 500 short stories, or play 500 songs on the guitar. If your technique isn’t right, you’ll be getting progressively better at doing things the wrong way, and helping to entrench habits that will hold you back from reaching your full potential with that skill.
Every time you practice with bad technique, you entrench it further. The most obvious example is in sport, and unknowingly teaching your muscle memory to throw incorrectly, or kick like your leg is a hockey stick. But this applies just as equally to cooking, or making music, or writing, or any other skill you might want to learn. If you start to practice before you know what you are trying to learn (and what you are trying not to learn), your skills may end up stagnating.
“I can’t sing.”
If you’ve ever had the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching an episode of an Idol series, you’ve probably seen some of the terrible auditions that air. You watch those people and assume they are talentless and delusional, that they simply don’t have the ability to sing. And yet, there’s no doubt they spend a lot of time singing, and singing the same things repeatedly and doing their best to improve. They’re engaging in what is commonly called deliberate practice, so why are they still so bad at singing?
I suspect it’s because they spend a lot of time practicing how to sing badly. They’ve never been taught how to control their voice, or modulate their pitch. Surrounded by encouraging friends and relatives, they’ve never been told that they’re going about this whole singing thing the wrong way.
And yet, with the right teaching, practicing the right things, even the worst singer can learn how to sing.
Repeat success patterns
When trying to learn any skill the best thing you can do is learn how the skill is practiced by people who are already experts. How do your favorite writers write? How do the best soccer players kick a ball? Find success patterns and replicate them.
Too often we focus only on results when we practice. It’s possible to achieve good results with bad technique, but too often that’s what separates the best from those who get lost among the middle ranks. You hit a ceiling of how far you can go doing things the wrong way.
Learn the best practices in the field you are trying to learn, then practice what you learn. In sport, practice correct form. Focus on form over results. In the short-term you might fall behind teammates who settle for easy yet incorrect methods, but long-term your investment in good technique will pay off.
When writing, don’t simply try to write as much as you can, regardless of quality. Try to produce as much good writing as you can, putting into practice the advice and best practices that you learn. Don’t write things that you know contradict the expert advice you have read, for the sake of increasing your word count (often thinking I’ll fix it later). Every time you do that, you’re getting better at bad writing.
When striving for expertise, deliberate practice is not enough. To become an expert at a skill, you must:
1. Learn the best practices, success patterns, and correct technique and form for the skill you’re trying to master. The time you spend reading and researching is not, as is commonly argued, wasted time that you should spend actually practicing. You are preparing yourself to practice right.
2. Practice good form first, and think about results later. Most bad form is entrenched when people take shortcuts to get results faster. If you’ve ever read a poorly written best-selling novel, that’s why.
3. Practice good form for a long time and you can’t fail to become extremely good at the skill you’re practicing. Just know that hard work isn’t quite enough. You don’t need innate talent (many argue it doesn’t exist), but you do need to practice intelligently.