Ben Scofield

Ben Scofield

… rarely updated

24 Aug 2009

The virtue of practice

Practice makes perfect - anonymous

When I was back in school, I did a lot of different things. I played a musical instrument, I programmed computers, I played volleyball, I studied foreign languages - and the key to getting better at each of them, I was told, was practice. So, I practiced. With some skills, I got better. With others, I didn't. And because I was young and foolish (as opposed to being older and foolish, which I am now), I thought that there was something about each domain that made it more or less amenable to improvement via practice. Some things, I thought, only get better through performance, not through practice. In those performances, I tended to mess up, but I got better after each one. What I didn't realize at the time is that I was just practicing incorrectly - and that was turning my performances into public practice sessions.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball - Sandy Koufax

If you look for it, you can find a huge amount of literature on practice. It seems cyclical; every few years, another cluster of books hit the shelves and articles hit the newspapers (or, more recently, the blogs). The interesting thing, though, is that there's no central practice section of the library - people write about it in every sphere. One of my favorite books on the subject is George Leonard's Mastery, which uses the martial arts as a lens onto the role of practice in the journey to mastery. Chad Fowler's The Passionate Programmer is more recent, and is also very good - discussing (among other topics) the role of practice in software development. There are a few books that investigate the role of practice more generally. One of my favorites of these is Talent Is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, which has the benefit of bringing in stories of the power of practice across many domains (be sure to read the section about Ben Franklin and his wonderful, obsessive practicing of the art of writing). The common thread among the best of the books that deal with practice is the concept of deliberate practice. This, it turns out, was what I'd failed to appreciate in school.

Practice is the best of all instructors - Pubilius Syrus

Deliberate practice is as different from indifferent practice as cross-country running is from walking. The key is twofold: choice of practice materials, and attention. If you're exclusively practicing things you already know how to do, you're not practicing deliberately. If you're not paying attention and actively striving to learn from your practice sessions, you're again not practicing deliberately. The goal is to stretch during practice - attempt to do something new, and pay close attention to your performance so that you can see where you fall short. You should come out of a practice session tired, because intense focus is exhausting. You shouldn't succeed at everything you attempt during practice, because that means you haven't been practicing the right things - or your standards are too low. Practicing the right way is hard - which only makes sense; if it were easy, everyone would do it, and we'd see a lot more excellence in every field. Nevertheless, for many of us, it's worth it. Excellence (or mastery) in a field is one of the finest goals we can aim for, and practice is really the only way to achieve it.