Practice Makes Perfect? Busting the Myth

By Elizabeth McCormick

Elizabeth McCormickSometimes, 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 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 an overlooked key 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 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 hard wired. You practice your responses and make them permanent.

Consider a toddler experiencing a candle for the first time. The dancing flame delights them. Their learning skills are based around senses. They see the flame and instinctively they want to touch, taste, smell, and hear the flame. So, they reach for it.

You know what’s going to happen, right? Of course, you do. You’ve built those neural paths and you’re quite comfortable with keeping your hands a certain distance from flame. The toddler, however, is amassing knowledge and has not yet connected the flame with pain and danger. Burned once though, and that information is hardwired immediately, amidst significant turmoil and trauma, depending on how badly they were burned. Thereafter, the toddler 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 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 as you saw above. There may be something off in your process or timing, but it’s very unlikely you’re 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 jobs or duties 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, hateful though they may be, 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 be 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 McCormick is a keynote speaker, author, and authority on Leadership. A former US Army Black Hawk Pilot, she is the best-selling 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. For more information, please visit www.yourinspirationalspeaker.com.

This entry was posted in Elizabeth McCormick and tagged by editor. Bookmark the permalink.

About editor

Wordsmith Peter DeHaan shares his passion for life and faith through words. Peter DeHaan’s website (www.peterdehaan.com) contains information and links to his blogs, newsletter, and social media pages. Peter DeHaan is the president of Peter DeHaan Publishing, Inc., (www.peterdehaanpublishing.com) the publisher and editor of Connections Magazine and AnswerStat, and editor of Article Weekly.