Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Let’s rewind the clock about 20 years to when I was studying music in university. I would hide my vitamin D-deficient self in a practice room for hour after hour, angrily hacking away at scales, etudes, and recital rep with feverish intensity. I’d make the same mistakes in the same places, over and over again, and get frustrated when I didn’t see the progress I wanted to.

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I was young and stupid and had a lot to learn. At that point it wasn’t entirely my fault, because all my life people had been telling me that practice makes perfect – that all you have to do is put in the hours and you’ll get better.

Now I’m old(er). I still have a lot to learn, but if there is one thing I have figured out, it is that practice doesn’t make perfect. That’s an archaic bullshit idea. It’s actually counterproductive, and here’s why: if you practice making mistakes, guess what you get good at? You guessed it: making mistakes. And those mistakes, once they’re cemented into your muscle memory, are hard to undo…which is why it’s important to get it right the first time.  Or at least to catch your mistakes so that they don’t hold up your progress.

This is not easy to do, especially if you have impatient or overachieving tendencies. Trust me, I know – you want to make shit happen, like, yesterday, and it *should* be coming together! Right?

Nope. That’s your ego lying to you and blinding you to what truly needs to be done. It’ll make you think you can cut corners, that you’re smart/strong/capable enough to move past the basics before you’re ready. Or hey, maybe at one point you were ready but then you added a dimension to what you want to accomplish, and now you need to go back to those dratted basics to move forward. Stupid basics, your ego will say. Well, I have news for your ego: the basics are your friends. When you hit the wall with something, they are always there for you. And 99% of the time, returning to the basics will solve whatever problem you’re up against.

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Case in point: I’ve been struggling through a plateau in the gym lately. See, a year or so ago I started dabbling in olympic weightlifting – I figured it would broaden my horizons, make me a better powerlifter…which was right. But olympic lifting also has the same addictive properties as OxyContin, so the dabbling didn’t last long. In September I decided that it was time to actually commit and get serious. My ego was right there for the ride, telling me that I am a reasonably strong individual, that I have some experience with strength sports, and that I should progress pretty easily. Never mind the fact that olympic weightlifting is unlike anything else I’ve ever done; it requires skill, finesse, and finely-honed technique as well as beastly strength. Or that it requires a highly developed energy system that I have never trained, ever in my life.

So off we went, my inflated ego and I…and here’s what happened. I did make relatively quick progress at first – my ego wasn’t entirely wrong in that it actually is good to start with some strength and some experience.  But I hit a wall in pretty short order; mostly due to the fact that I let misguided ideas about what I *should* be lifting blind me to what actually needed careful, attentive work. So I wrapped up my ego in duct tape, shoved her into a closet, and went back to the beginning.

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This time though, I have my cool cucumber-flavoured big-girl panties on. I’m practicing mindfully and attentively so that I don’t develop bad habits that will take for freaking ever to undo…because here’s the thing: when you’re learning new skills, mistakes happen. That’s inevitable, and you have to let yourself make them so that you know how to correct them on the fly. The important part is that you DO correct them in short order so that you can get on with the important business of fucking up in other ways.

The take-home message here is that ego is the enemy of awareness, and getting better at any new skill requires (you guessed it) awareness. If you approach a practice session with the mindset that you’re just going to put the hours in, you will not see the results you want. Know why? Because practice doesn’t make perfect – PERFECT practice makes perfect.

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