Practice Makes Perfect?

Recently I sat next to a surgeon on the plane who asked me what I did. When I told him I worked as an executive coach and consultant he proclaimed, “I could do that easily”.

I must confess I had to suppress an impulse to say to the surgeon, “I can carve a turkey at Thanksgiving. I will assist in your next organ transplant”

It takes training, talent, and many hours of practice to master any complex skill like learning a language, improving one’s empathy, or becoming proficient in a profession. That fact alone should divest us of any instant credentialing hopes or sudden expert status.

Back to the need for practice. We have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”. But that is not really true.

Practice only makes permanent.

It depends what we practice.

We could be repeating the same mistakes over and over and all that happens is that the error becomes hardwired into our muscle memory.

Most leadership skills come from deliberate practice and seldom just from any innate talent or skill. Even though there are natural in-born talents like a great speaking voice or intellectual capabilities these also need to be nurtured and developed with training.

Here are the principles that line the route to excellence.

 Principle #1

Practice success.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement” and “You may be repeating the wrong moves”. Hence, you need to identify the best practices for the skill you seek to develop and make them an integral part of your learning.

 Lesson: Learn best practices for the skill you want to develop and practice them over and over.

Principle #2

The enemy of practice is a lack of humility.

 “To practice isn’t to declare I’m bad. To practice is to declare, I can be better.” – Doug Lemov.

The key to humility is recognizing that we did not devise the best practice ourselves. Our success usually stands on the shoulders of others.

 Lesson:  Discover the teachable spirit of the true student.

Principle #3

Practice the two or three things that will produce the greatest change.

A golf professional told a friend of mine after watching him practice for 30 minutes, “There are dozens of things I could tell you to do but I will coach you on two of them that will produce a significant change in your game”.

 Lesson: Try the 80/20 rule. 20% of your effort should produce an 80% improvement in your skill.

Principle #4

Practice success until it becomes second nature.

Repeat the success based behaviors over and over until they become encoded in your muscle memory. Eventually they become second nature for you to perform at a higher level.

Studies of players who miss shots under pressure and in a clutch demonstrate that they over think their shots. They need to let their encoded memories do the work.

Lesson: Get your mind out of the way.

Principle #5

Learning is best when it occurs in steady small steps.

It is too demoralizing to aim at 100% success right away. It is also important not to stop practicing when you feel you know your skill. This is how we all make the shift from being good at something to being great.

 Lesson: Become a lifelong learner.

So go ahead and reach for excellence. However, realize that it takes many hours of focused practice to become an overnight success.

And with that we say to the surgeon on my plane,

 “Dream on but stick to what you know!”


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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