Practice doesn’t make perfect…but you’ll never get better without it
Why most professional development doesn’t develop anything, and what to do about it.
by TJ Hoffman
When he was in his 80’s, renowned 20th century cellist and composer Pablo Casals was asked by the New York Times why he continued to practice every day. By this time, he was widely regarded as one of the best cellists in the world. And, at 82 or 83, he wasn’t likely to pursue or achieve much that he hadn’t already accomplished.
So, why did he continue to practice his craft every day?
“Because,” Casals replied, “I’m making progress.”
To me, the musician’s simple statement is the true mark of a professional. Musicians, like other artists, know that the only way to make progress is to practice. And the purpose of practices is continuous improvement. I believe if someone says they have nothing left to achieve or learn then they shouldn’t be called a professional. In fact, there is no set of knowledge or skills, no degree or certification that anyone can attain that makes them a “professional.” Only one thing can do that: the belief that you are making progress everyday.
In the world of work, however, we don’t often hear the word “practice” used in relation to continuous improvement. When discussing learning at work, the term most often used is “professional development.” Allegedly, anyone who creates or participates in any kind of “professional development” is also working towards the ultimate aim of continuous improvement. If you’re not participating in professional development in order to get better…what’s the point? It has always been my belief that the term “professional development” should be grounded in the word “professional.” The whole point of doing it is to develop people’s professional abilities. And since being a professional means making progress everyday, professional development should serve one purpose: progressively changing the way people do their work.
Sadly, most training and professional development doesn’t do that at all. That’s because most activities that people call “professional development” fall into two categories:
1. “Let Me Tell You What To Do!” This is the classic seminar, training class, or workshop. In these experiences, somebody tells a bunch of other people what to do and/or how to do it.
2. “Let Me Show You What To Do!” These experiences can take many forms, but are really just a variation on the first experience. Here, instead of somebody telling a bunch of other people something, they provide them with “models” or “templates.”
Both of these experiences serve a similar purpose: to define the way in which some work should be done and to give people an example that they can copy in their own work.
While experiences like these serve some purpose, especially for learners who don’t share my “just jump in and figure it out” mentality, I think they are overused by professional developers. There’s nothing about these experiences that amounts to professional development. Even if training is done in some engaging virtual environment, or provides participants with the opportunity to respond to the material in some way, without an impetus to practice, the best you’ll get is a bunch of lemmings mindlessly copying and pasting an example.
That’s not to say that these kinds of experiences aren’t sometimes necessary. In many instances, examples and models can be helpful. You’d be hard pressed to find a single performer who doesn’t listen to and watch performances, or athletes who don’t watch games, to get new ideas. Models and examples are great for getting a rough understanding of the end goal. For musicians, it can be good to hear a recording of a piece to get a general idea of what it will sound like. Many athletes develop a basic understanding of a play by seeing someone else do it. Models and examples can also be good for critiquing and analysis to help understand the underlying concepts that led to the performance.
Don Killgallon’s method of teaching writing to middle and high school students works very well. It starts with models and examples of sentence composing by professional writers and students practice and emulate their techniques.
But that’s the beginning, not the end. Models, examples, explanations, and checklists all serve a purpose, but if your role is to develop professionals, you’re not doing enough if you are just giving them content and quizzes.
Since true professional development involves practice, as teachers, we must learn how to practice correctly. With that in mind, here are five things that aren’t practice, and the five ways everyone can improve their practice.
Practice isn’t Finite:
The old adage “practice makes perfect” is misleading. This statement implies that if you practice enough, you might reach a point of “perfection” and then can stop practicing. You can’t. The second you stop practicing a skill, it deteriorates. Of course, that doesn’t mean the activities you do to practice a certain skill might reach an expiration date. Those practice activities just get replaced by something else.
Practice isn’t Watching others:
If watching were practicing, I’d know a lot more professional athletes, considering how many people spend hours watching sports every weekend.. Watching someone else shows you one way to do something. It will never show you how you can do it. Watching others only works if you can be introspective about the relationship between what they do and what you do. There’s a whole term for it in sports spectatorship: Monday Morning Quarterbacking. Watching only works when it is applied towards the act of practice. When watching others, if you’re not asking “how will I change what I do based on what I see?” you’re not doing yourself any good.
Practice isn’t Watching yourself:
This is another great learning experience that still isn’t practice. We should all review our work, watch gametape and evaluate artifacts of our effort. Watching yourself gives you a sense of your current reality and can provide the impetus for wanting to improve. But this reflective act won’t do anything unless you take it a step further. Without turning reflection into action, you’re unlikely to improve.
Practice isn’t a performance:
When I was teaching, most of my colleagues thought my days were spent in an episode of Glee. And, frankly, so did most of my students. The glamor of performing can be loads of fun. Showing off a fully prepared song, dance, or book are gratifying experiences. But “performing” is a completely different task from “practicing.” Performance requires you to turn off many of the self-critical skills you need during a rehearsal. You need to move through the mistakes and flaws, practically ignoring them. Flaws and imperfections can’t stop a performance. As the old saying goes, “the show must go on.”
Practice isn’t repetition
When I was in high school, I played tennis (poorly). My friend Billy and I would head out to the court three times a week after school to “practice.” What we actually did was just hit a tennis ball at one another over and over again for about an hour and a half and then go home. It was mindless repetition, and neither of us ever got any better. Of course, we eventually got bored and gave up. For many people, there’s a misconception that if you do something enough times, you’ll eventually improve. In fact, there’s a whole book about it. Well…actually that’s not what the book is about at all. But that’s what people often think it’s about.
Practice is Never-ending:
There’s a Japanese principle called Kaizen. Literally translated, it simply means “continuous improvement.” However, in concept the idea is that any task can be broken down into a set of actions, and that those actions can be tweaked continuously as you identify ways in which the tweak would result in an improved outcome. This process is cyclical, and only happens while the task is being performed. While the specifics of Kaizen are far too detailed for this post, the concept is important. The underlying assumption behind Kaizen is that no action can be perfectly performed, so you should always seek to improve. If you always seek to improve, then your practice will never end. Casals was famous for practicing the same pieces of music throughout his life, even pieces he had performed to millions of listeners. The reason outstanding musicians repeat certain exercises over and over again is that it helps them refine the micro-movements they do with their bodies and instruments to achieve some better sound. The same is true for any professional practice. There’s always something to improve and refine, well after you’ve achieved a seemingly “perfect” performance.
Practice is Getting help from others:
Just because practicing isn’t about watching others doesn’t mean you should do it alone. In fact, it’s foolish (and a little arrogant) to think you can practice intentionally all by yourself. You need to show others what you’re working on while you’re working on it. An outside perspective will help you avoid the inevitable blindspots we all have about our own actions. But don’t stop with feedback, try practicing with others to really turbocharge your practice. The energy you can build practicing a skill with someone else can be electric (as long as you both stay focused). Co-practicing stops being about “I’ll show you then you show me” activities and generates all kinds of spontaneous ways to collaborate and improve. Think of athletes running drills together. The sheer act of doing it communally causes each individual to improve at a quicker rate! Even the most experienced musicians work with conductors, coaches, and teachers throughout their careers.
Practice is Reviewing something to break it down
To be honest, it is unfair to say that watching yourself isn’t practice. Actually, watching yourself (or reviewing some aspect of what you’re practicing) is a crucial prerequisite for practice. One of the most common mistakes novice musicians make is to “practice blind,” by not recording their practice and going back to see how they’re doing. Practice is designed to build muscle memory, and if you’re practicing wrong, you can do some real damage. So using artifacts of your practice, such as drafts of your writing or recordings of your speech, are terribly important to intentional practice. Stopping throughout each practice session to review what you’ve just done, breaking it down into its component parts, and deciding what to tweak will help you make sure your practice is on the right path. Just make sure your review is always followed by immediate action.
Practice is diving into the ugly moments
Of course, the reality of being in my class was nothing like what you see on television. Most of what we did was skill-building, not performance. And the exercises we did in class weren’t designed to show off the things my students already did well. They were designed to challenge the skills they struggled with. It was a difficult transition for many of them (and a bit of a shock for my colleagues when they came to visit my class). It can be really unpleasant to spend all of your time repeating the things you do the worst. But that’s where the real practice happens, in the ugly moments. In fact, the only way to improve something you don’t do well is to do it poorly a bunch of times, gradually improving each time.
Practice is refining
Gladwell, and the actual researchers behind his well known book Outliers, understand that 10,000 hours of any activity alone won’t do a lick of good. What real outliers do is spend time refining. Refining, literally, means to remove impurity. When you refine metal in a crucible, you’re literally burning out the impure elements to make the metal more itself. That’s the same thing practice can do. And it does take time. And it will require doing something over and over again. Like sharpening a knife on a honing steel, you’ll need to repeat an act in order to make your desired outcome more itself. So when you repeat something during practice, do it with care.
Practice can be rough
This may not be for everyone. Some people might feel like they just want to be told what to do, how to do it, and then be left alone. And for some jobs and skills, that is sufficient. Practice is hard. That’s why there aren’t a million professional musicians or athletes out there. True practice is a rare occurrence. But it’s the absolute mark of any professional.
And you might think “there’s nothing about my job that I can practice.” That isn’t true. You can practice anything. Writers practice writing with drafts and revisions. You can write an email or a memo draft and make revisions to improve your writing skills. Meetings are some combination of listening intently and public speaking. You can practice becoming a better listener or speaker. Even “hard skills” like computer coding and engineering can be refined through practice.
I’m sure Maestro Casals didn’t have a great day of practice for all of his 97 years. The thing that makes him a good inspiration for your practice is this: he just did it. And he knew that, as long as he practiced every day, he would make progress. Sometimes the progress will be hard to see, and sometimes it will feel almost imperceptible. But the one thing you can be sure of is this: if you don’t practice, you’ll never make any progress.
Just because some of the things listed above aren’t practice doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. Models, repetition, and performances all serve a purpose. But thinking of professional development without thinking of both words in the phrase will not develop you professionally. Practice or rehearsal that lasts your entire life is the only way to keep things current, and keep things fresh. Don’t ever think you’ve reached mastery, and don’t ever stop trying to achieve it. While practice might not make perfect, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying!