”Practice makes perfect” and “no one is perfect” are both believed to be axioms, however they’re contradictory, and can’t both exist in the land of truth. If you encounter a contradiction in something you know, you’ve found a red flag signaling your mind holds false knowledge.
We’ll all agree that no one is perfect, therefore it’s the so called axiom that “practice makes perfect” that calls for further examination. My claim in the title of this article is that practice is misunderstood, therefore, a logical place to start my explanation is with how our current perception of practice has been nurtured.
The Need for Speed
Everything’s getting faster. For example, technology. As technology increases in speed, so do our expectations about how fast tasks should be completed. When I started using the Internet in 1998 it took anything between ten and sixty seconds to load each web page. Today when I use the Internet a page loads in about one or two seconds. If I have to wait longer I feel like smashing the computer because the wait is unbearable.
Everywhere we look there are solutions promising to help us get more done in less time. We’re able to get information, food, clothes and just about anything faster because of advancements in technology. The deals offered by manufactures are tempting. If I buy their products, I’ll complete my unfavourable tasks quicker, so I can spend more time on leisure. Who doesn’t want to spend more time on leisure ?
It’s part of our culture to search for solutions which will make life easier. This is partly because it’s our nature, but probably more because of nurture. We’re able to download a book in under thirty seconds, have food delivered in under thirty minutes, and have an idea planned, executed and published to thousands of people on the Internet in under three hours. There’s no denying that speed and efficiency have become staple parts of our culture.
The Evolution of Technology and the Human Gene Pool
Technology evolves at neck breaking speeds. If you buy the fastest computer available today, there’s no doubt that something faster will come along in three to six months. On the other hand, the world record for the one hundred meter sprint is broken in stretches of years. It takes hundreds and thousands of years to see significant changes in the human gene pool. However, technology seems to evolve at an exponential rate.
We live in a culture obsessed with efficiency and speed, so we’ve created tools that are stronger and faster than us to address our increasing obsession. It’s worth noting that the tools we’ve created offload tasks from the human mind and body. While there are obvious benefits to offloading some tasks, I’m led to wonder how capable we are of increasing the speed at which we improve cognitive tasks like language learning and physical tasks like running. Over the years humans have gotten smarter, stronger and faster as a result of evolution. However, can we hack the mind and body to increase the speed at which we evolve?
How to Spot a Charlatan
Every so often someone comes along with a so-called “brand new” method which they promise will revolutionize the way we learn a new skill. For years humans have felt frustrated with tasks that require lots of cognition, for example, language learning. Therefore it makes sense that new methods are proposed to lessen the frustration felt while improving our rate of success.
A quick glance at the list of best selling books over the last few years confirms the demand for speed and efficiency. Best selling author Tim Ferris is know for his series of books which claim to help you make great changes to life in as little as four hours. Namely, The Four Hour Work Week, The Four Hour Body and The Four Hour Chef. I’ve read several of Tim’s books, and while he does offer some great advice, I’ve always felt that he exaggerated his results and left out key details with the intent of appealing as much as possible to the human desire to achieve more with less effort.
It goes without saying that we all want to improve our skills with less frustration, that our culture has conditioned us to expect more in less time, and that humans simply don’t evolve as fast as the technology which has conditioned us to expect so much.
To illustrate this a bit further I want to introduce you to the project management triangle:
This basically states that when embarking on a project you can only have two of the three attributes on the points of the triangle.
When a new method comes along claiming that you can achieve more with less effort, it’s almost certainly breaking this project management law. In other words, the so-called method is snake oil, and the person selling it is a charlatan.
If you work quickly, with little effort, you won’t produce quality.
If you work quickly, and want quality, you’ll have to make a lot of effort.
And so on…
Project management is about managing resources and ensuring that things get done. In other words, it’s results oriented. This is relevant, because it’s the same way that most people approach practice: they’re focused on the target. And I’m here to tell you that this is completely and utterly WRONG!
How to Hit a Target with Your Eyes Closed
Why do we practice? “Because practice makes perfect” or “because you have to practice to get good”, you might say. Both answers suggest that practice is something we do for an outcome. That’s true for many people – and here we have the genesis for the commonly misunderstood nature of practice.
One of my favourite books of all time is “Zen in the art of Archery”. It tells the story, from a first person perspective, of a man who went to Japan to learn archery. He documents his progress over the course of his five years spent in Japan. It was really difficult for him to understand his teacher’s approach to archery because it was so different to what he knew.
The following passage taken from the book illustrates this perfectly:
“ I had to admit to the Master that his interpretation made me more confused than ever. “ For ultimately”, I said, “ I draw the bow to loose the shot in order to hit the target. The drawing thus is a means to an end, and I cannot lose sight of this connection. The child knows nothing of this, but for me the two things cannot be disconnected.”
“The right art”, cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless!
The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
That may sound confusing. It was at first to me, so I’ll try to explain.
Focusing on the target means taking your focus away from the the action that will take you to your destination. According to the teacher in this book an archer must focus on his breathing and not on hitting the target.
At the beginning of my journey learning Spanish I had a similar experience to the student in this book. My goal was to speak Spanish fluently. I worked extremely hard and constantly assessed my progress. According to a majority of self-help books I was doing everything right. I was setting goals and reviewing my progress. Apparently this was what I needed to do to succeed. However I noticed that while I was making progress I was constantly frustrated when I saw the distance between me and my destination.
I went to visit the well known polyglot Luca Lampariello at his home in Rome during the summer of 2012, and he said something to me that changed my perspective on language learning forever. “David, lots of people think I study languages all day, but I don’t study a lot at all. If you want to learn a language well you have to make it part of your life, have lots of fun, enjoy the process and fluency will take care of itself” This is pretty much the same advice that was given to the student of archery in the aforementioned book. I took my eyes off of fluency and one year later I can say I speak Spanish fluently.
We live in a culture that’s heavily results orientated, and so we search for solutions to achieve more with less time and effort. However, this mission is self destructive as the project management triangle points out above.
The optimal formula is right under your noses, but to see it you have to take your eyes off your goals. Then and only then will your goals take care of themselves.