“Practice, practice, practice! For practice makes perfect”
We have heard this many times, but every good thing has a certain context behind it, that if not understood, can actually harm rather than help. The key assumption in practice is — you need to practice the right thing.
Why? Because practice makes it permanent. Practice will help you perfect whatever you do, but it does not know whether it is making you better or not. We are habit forming creatures, so whatever we do repeatedly, we tend to do that more easily, and we are more likely to do it. It is up to us to figure out whether what we are repeatedly doing helps or harms. We thus need a feedback mechanism.
The other aspect that impacts what we practice is that humans acquire habits because we repeat behavior that works, which means we need quick rewards to form right habits. If rewards take too long, or are too tough to achieve, almost all but the most devout will give up. This means we have to stay close to our competencies so we can achieve the challenges offered, else habits won’t form and practice thus won’t work.
A key factor to remember is that any skill or art can be broken down into the components that are must to master, if one has to master the skill. Whenever you are learning a new area, you will always do better if you get very clear about the power of each of the small part of the skill before you start embarking on using the full set of weapons. To do that, requires playing with them.
We need a map of the right skills to acquire, the level of expertise in each of those, and a way to know where we are and how to improve.
As a corollary to above, rather than speaking in abstract, I should use a language most people will relate to else it won’t click. Sports offer some great analogies to think of matters of excellence, as the results are more objective, and most people are familiar enough to discuss intelligently. So why not use Sports to highlight the points on right practice.
Suppose you are a budding Badminton player wanting to improve your backhand hit from the back of your court to the back of other court. You need to practice hard, but you also need the right technique. For, no matter how strong you are, unless you get the right swing, you will not be able to get the shuttle from the back of your court to the back of opposite court. So if you don’t have the right technique, you will perfect the wrong shot and very soon find yourself unable to move beyond your opponent’s mid court.
Hence, for the specific skill you are practicing, you need the right technique which includes the right technique to practice, plus you need a way to figure out if you are improving or not — something like how far does the shuttle go.
This highlights an important principle — the importance of a feedback loop, or a way to figure out if we are on the right track. In the example above, how close to the back of the opponent’s court does your shuttle land on an average is the feedback telling you how close you are to the perfection you are striving for.
So let us say you practice hard and get the backhand perfect. But is that enough to become a great badminton player. How do we know? Well we use another feedback loop — simply play a few matches.
Within a couple of matches you will figure out that even the best backhand in the world is not going to take you far, as your opponents will demolish your game by playing only to your forehand. You will quickly realize that you need a gamut of skills — backhand, forehand, drop, smash, defense, court movement, stamina, etc etc.
So another principle to keep in mind — you need to keep the larger picture in mind about what you are trying to excel at,and acquire the variety of skills that are essential for it.
Another important aspect of life to understand that most people get wrong is — The matches we play in life are not so much to prove our mettle, they are a way to improve — they help you break the journey into manageable milestones and hence avoid losing your way. Most of the time in life, we take success and failure in the tests of life as end results, rather than taking them as part of the process — this is an absolutely wrong way to think and live.
Coming back to our example, it helps to play with a variety of opponents as they will come with different styles and open up different areas of improvement. But is it useful to think of the level of challenge? Should the opponents be any and every body, or should you be selecting them from a particular level of expertise?
Here again, simple observation in life can guide us — Make your matches too easy and you will look like the perfect player getting 10s in all aspects — very rewarding to the ego, but won’t get you far. Make it too tough and you will get 0s in all — most likely you will be demotivated and give up. Think of it the other way — if you are the best player in your school, where are you going to improve the most — playing more with your school mates or playing at the district level or playing with Olympic Champions.
So it is important to think of the right level of challenge as you think of your next goal. At just the right level of challenge, you will get the best feedback that will lead to fastest improvement. You will loose most of the matches you play but the gain in terms of feedback and real life practice would be wonderful.
To sum it up, you need to figure out the right course to follow (the right levels of challenges), the right skills to acquire to meet each challenge, and the right technique to follow to acquire each skill. Having the right feedback at each point of iteration is an absolute must to avoid getting lost.
Does it look too complex — you bet it is, and this brings us to the last principle — Find yourself a good teacher / coach who can help you break this journey and undertake it with you. The same person need not take you through all levels.
I end with a quote from Ericsson that sums it best — “what matters is not experience per say, but Effortful Study that entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.”