Being successful at anything requires practice. But sometimes, even with practice, success may seem unattainable. There could be a number of reasons, but the one we can most easily control is how, what, and how often we practice.

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that “practice makes perfect.” But that’s not always the case. In fact, sometimes practice can actually hold us back. “How so,” you ask?

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” — Dr. Calvin Johanson

What does that mean?

Those words rang in my ears more than once when I was in college. Dr. Johanson was my private piano teacher for a couple of years and taught some of the most intellectually challenging courses that I took in my degree. As I struggled towards basic proficiency in keyboarding, he would remind me again and again that it was not only important that I practiced, but also that I practiced the right things the right way.

He was reminding me that if I tried to practice outside my ability (read that as “too quickly”), I would learn the music and techniques incorrectly and would spend more time unlearning what I’d learned incorrectly. I would be wasting my time in my rush to get ahead.

It applies to almost everything

The principle, though, applies to more than just music or sports. It can be about anything that we’re trying to learn or master. Any habit or attitude that we’re trying to change. I suppose it could even apply to professional unicorn spotting.

Let’s say that you wanted to be a professional unicorn spotter and the process for unicorn spotting goes like this:

  1. Sit down on the back porch of your Winnebago
  2. Wait until you hear tree leaves rustling (summertime only)
  3. Grab a pad and pen
  4. Write the word Rikitikitenbonosaremboparipipperipenbo three times
  5. Spell Proletariat in Pig Latin
  6. Grab your binoculars
  7. Sing “Hello Dolly”
  8. Unicorns appear!

Naturally, you would want to practice. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good Saturday evening without seeing the awe-inspiring unicorn. So you’d practice.

But if you practiced it more quickly than your ability to write the word Rikitikitenbonosa… you’d learn it wrong and you’d have to go back and learn it again. And again.

This happened to me recently

No. Not the unicorn thing. That was made up.

I’ve been playing saxophone for a community theatre production of the musical “Annie.” Most of the music is not that difficult but there were sections that I’ve had to put some significant time into practicing. Early on (having forgotten Dr. Johanson’s advice) I was trying to blow right through the difficult sections and was skipping some of the trickier transitions.

But as I realized that I was wasting my time I started slowing down. Proceeding at the speed of my current ability and then stretching incrementally towards my goal.

And you know what? It worked. It almost always works.

How about you?

Where are you spinning your wheels?
Can you slow down to speed up?

Photo credit: Phil Roeder

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