The Misunderstood Nature of Practice: Why Everything You Know About Practice Is Wrong and How to Practice Effectively

by David · 28 comments

”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.

Zen in the art of ArcheryOne 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.

  • Agnieszka ‘Mizuu’ Gorońska

    When you mentioned Tim Ferris, I immidiately remembered his phrase “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Maybe that’s useful to getting rid of the contradiction? 🙂

    • In the article I mentioned Tim Ferris as an advocate of achieving more with less time and effort, not as a person promoting that practice makes perfect.

  • Interesting idea of the project managemet triangle, there is sth in it! I agree that a way to the goal should not be underestimated =)

  • Jessica Walsh

    The project management triangle definitely makes a lot of sense, even though I think it unforunate. I guess I would say that picking all three would symbolize true perfection, that one quality we can see in theory while being unable to obtain it in practise.

    • Exactly! Embracing this concept is important and helpful for creating realistic expectations of oneself. Often frustration comes from expecting too much, And society has a big part to play in how these expectations are created.

  • Siegfried Krause

    “If you encounter a contradiction in something you know, you’ve found a red flag signaling your mind holds false knowledge.”

    Limiting belief. Human thinking and language, unlike predicative logic, is inherently imprecise and contradictive. There is no truth as such, just thoughts that seem right under given circumstances. Thus it is more helpful to think of knowledge as useful, rather than true. It doesn’t matter whether the phrase “practice makes perfect” is semantically true; the important thing is what the person looking at the phrase gets out of it. For example, being reminded that practice can help them improve a specific skill beyond what seemed possible on first glance.

    Ohterwise, interesting article! The art is aimless. Focus on doing, being. I like that.

    • I was with you until you wrote ” There is no truth as such, just thoughts that seem right under given circumstances” What you are talking about is opinion. Truth is consistent and cannot be contradicted.

      You are correct in saying that human language is often imprecise, and that’s precisely why philosophers define words before starting an argument.

      “It doesn’t matter whether the phrase “practice makes perfect” is semantically true; the important thing is what the person looking at the phrase gets out of it.”

      Again, you’re expressing an opinion. It’s an opinion I also hold, but nevertheless it’s an opinion.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I’m glad you liked the article! 🙂

      • Siegfried Krause

        “Again, you’re expressing an opinion.”

        I’m aware of that. 🙂

        How do you know there is any truth beyond what is perceived as truth? You can of course define truth as “consistent and cannot be contradicted”, and then discuss this concept of truth. However, there is no guarantee that this is an accurate model of the world. The universe might implode tomorrow for some reason inconceivable to us.

        Models of the world are all we have. Different models can contradict each other, and still be valuable as models.

        • Yes, most of what we think of as true is in fact opinion. The problem is not defining truth, it’s identifying if what’s in front of you is true or not. And here we have one of the greatest problems in philosophy. I’m still exploring the topic so I’m not sure I have much more to say 🙂

        • Nicholas

          Your post seems irrelevant. This article was simply meant to be practical advice for people interested, not a challenge to find some first principles of reality or fundamental truth of some kind. Though the advice was inspired by Zen practice, it was nevertheless meant for practicality not philosophical discourse, and that much should be obvious because of the nature of this site.

          Also, your thinking seems somewhat nihilistic and because the gist of nihilism is that nothing can truly be known (or at least we can’t know whether or not we know) then it’s self-defeating because it is all-inclusive which means it is self-inclusive. Finally if all that is the case, then there’s no reason for me to consider someone else’s argument since nothing can be truly known (according to nihilism), which means that nihilism can only lead to profound ignorance.

          If we start with what is known and regress ad infinitum, then we will inevitably reach a point where nothing can be proven without first assuming something i.e. finding or inventing some axioms that make sense to most people and starting from there. Similar to mathematics but in science we use induction since sound non-trivial deductive arguments are rare outside mathematics (though it’s easy to fool ourselves otherwise, but that’s a matter of psychology).

          I say these things without malice but rather with the hope of being helpful in some way and to express myself honestly.



          • Siegfried Krause

            The gist of nihilism is that nothing has worth. That nothing can be known is the gist of agnosticism. I am not advocating either; if anything, I’m advocating eclecticism, which leads to the exact opposite of what you wrote, namely that anything may be considered.

            As you say, you cannot prove anything without assuming something. You can set up a working system of axioms interconnected by rules. But what you get is not truth — it is consistency. (Of course, it may help you deduce new insights ABOUT the truth.) I’m not saying don’t do this, on the contrary. Just don’t mistake the map for the territory.

            My intention however was not to start a debate about the nature of the universe (although I admit I screwed that up big time), but to point out that (from where I’m standing) holding contradicting beliefs is not a red flag. As far as that goes, it is relevant to the first lines of the article (though not the rest). I feel the same way about self-expression. 😉

          • Nicholas

            Epistemological Nihilism is consistent with my previous post, though you are right in terms of Existential Nihilism, I’m not sure why I was treating them in a similar respect, perhaps because most the Nihilist I’ve met gave me that impression. Also, you’re right about agnosticism in a very general sense, but it usually is applied to religious concepts such as deities specifically. I admit I was not aware of Eclecticism but it does seem to fit your arguments.

            As for “mistaking the map for the territory” I am aware of this fallacy though I’m sure I still make that mistake from time to time, I try not to, though I don’t attempt to be as logical as possible like I did at one point in my life which was mentally exhausting, though I appreciate your advice.

            So is Eclecticism the philosophy of take what works from every philosophy and leave the rest? If so I’m not completely against this but I do like the idea of one philosophy that works for everything, like a theory of everything but applied to philosophy instead of physics. Bruce Lee believed in taking what works and leaving the rest as his philosophy for self-growth and self-expression, and I like Bruce Lee.



          • Siegfried Krause

            Nicholas, I’d love to discuss this further, but I feel we’re starting to overextending our hospitality here. You’re welcome to look me up on Facebook, though.

            I am no expert in philosophy or eclecticism, nor do I subscribe to any ideology; I only used the term to better describe my beliefs. It’s not just about taking what works and dropping the rest though; it is about taking what works in a given situation, which is always due to change.

            As for one big “world formula” — I like to compare any system to software. 🙂 The bigger it gets, the more clunky and expensive it will be. If you pour enough money into it, you can develop a monolith that can do many things, but never everything, and always at the cost of performance and flexibility. Better to have a selection of tools and learn to use the appropriate tool for the job.

          • Nicholas

            I wouldn’t mind having future discussions, I am always trying to expand my knowledge and understanding of the world, but I don’t use facebook or any social networking sites. I just don’t like them that much, they easily cause me to waste too much time so I deleted all of my social networking site pages, so I could develop better focus.

            Your name sounds German, are you by any chance German? I’m about to start learning German using methods that I’ve researched on the net over the last few years. If you want to talk in the future about philosophy and other things then I could only use email at the moment.

          • Siegfried Krause

            I’ve grown up in Germany and I take an interest in language learning and possibly teaching. You can also find me on LiveMocha and Busuu… sadly (language related) social networks as well. 😉 Or you give me your contact information. I’m not putting my email address on a public blog.

          • Nicholas

            I have like five email accounts anyway, so here’s one of mine.


  • Adrienne

    wow, thanks for sharing the real “truth” about studying, learning and achieving. I will use this Project Management Triangle in many areas of my life; especially with my students. Hey, what country are you in now?

    • My pleasure! I’m glad you found the article helpful!

      At the moment I’m in Spain. I plan to move to another country in the last quarter of the year 🙂

  • Nicholas

    This article certainly touches on a common problem of modern society, such as, the tendency to a lack of patience and discipline, at least partly, because of the ever increasing role of technology in our lives in relation to our desires and the conflicts that that relationship fuels.

    Also, the gist seems to be that we are trying to master the target before we have mastered ourselves. I have never read the book “zen in the art archery” but I could imagine the master saying to the student something like “How can you hope to hit the target consistently before you can breathe? How could an infant hope to run before it could crawl and then stand and then fall and then not fall? The shift of perspective is, of course, from the end goal and to the process, then the concept being that if you master the process, then the goal will manifest itself in due time. I have in recent years (recent lives perhaps) realized how applicable and complementary zen philosophy is to modern society.

    Although this may not be entirely true either, I think that not “practice makes perfect” but rather “perfect practice makes perfect” is more accurate and probably more compatible with zen. There are other increasing things one can do, such as, intentionally breaking trivial patterns throughout the day to keep our lives from stagnating too much. Such little changes may benefit our ever evolving perspective.

    I really enjoy your articles and videos David, I hope you’re doing well. Thanks.



    • Nicholas

      “There are other increasing things one can do” obviously I meant “interesting” not “increasing”, heh, sorry about that.

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  • Cameron

    Hey David! Great post. I like that you draw us away from being results oriented. I’m a proponent of the holistic learning process, and one of the biggest sticking points is that you can’t immediately see where you are going. This is especially true when starting listening to more complex material. However, when you have faith in the method due to seeing it work in other circumstances, you are able to think only of what you need to do next while the results flood in!

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  • I agree with most what you have mentioned. However, purpose as a direction is something very important. I would disagree pretty much with the Zen approach on this simple premise. Mastery means having a purpose and executing the action without thinking about the process (contrarily). When we walk, do we think about our leg movements or do we think about destination we want to go? The answer is obvious.A master archer will not also think about all those processes, as they will come naturally. Of course a beginner has to think and focus on all those processes but it doesn’t mean neglecting the purpose. As time goes by the practitioner will be more alone with the purpose he/she has as processes become more automated.

  • A great article David, with some fascinating advice yet again from you and even a quote from our friend Luca to boot!

    What would you say is the equivalent of the archer’s ‘breathing’ in your personal experience with Spanish? Is there a way we can shift our focus the way you have? Thanks!

  • David

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been learning my first foreign language now for about two months. To begin with, I was exactly like you when you were learning Spanish, I just wanted to be fluent, and I wanted to be fluent quickly. I got frustrated very often, even though I was still interested in the language. Anyway, I came to the realisation about three weeks ago that learning a language does take a while and that I should just enjoy learning new words and also trying to connect with speakers of that language.

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