Practice
 Makes Perfect

February 4, 2013 in Essays

Renato, one of my Jiu Jitsu instructors, convinced me to get back into grappling in a kimono. “It will be hard at first,” he told me. “But after a few months, when you go back to fighting without the gi, your game will be better.”I know he’s right. But when he worked with me on it yesterday, I felt like a white belt again. He was slapping arm bars, foot locks, and collar chokes at the rate of one per minute.

At the end of my hour-long class, I was ready to cry.

I’ve been practicing this sport for seven years now. But when I put on that kimono, I regressed. Big time. Renato, who competes at 145 pounds, was tossing me around like a rag doll. And I outweigh him by 50 pounds.

I know from experience, though, that if I keep on practicing, I’ll get better. A month from now, after I’ve relearned my gi defenses and have regained a little confidence, I’ll be
giving away fewer submissions. And one day, I’ll give none.

I
 have no great natural talent for submission wrestling, but
 I am improving every day because I am willing to do what
 it takes. Making myself a better wrestler is no tougher than 
improving my Spanish language skills. I simply have to set
 myself specific goals, put in the time to practice, and keep
 at it until I succeed.

There
 is almost nothing you can’t accomplish so long as you are
 willing to put in the time. This is something I’ve been
 saying for years – and now there is a substantial
 academic work that confirms my view.

K.
 Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State
 University, has studied the subject of “expert performance” pretty
 much his entire professional life. Thirty years ago, he performed
 an experiment in which he trained people to hear and repeat
 series of numbers. Untaught subjects were able to remember
 about seven digits in a row. After 20 hours of training,
 their memory had improved to the point where they could remember
 a 20-digit sequence. After 200 hours of training, they could
 remember a sequence of more than 80 numbers.

Later
 experiments led Ericsson to conclude that whatever
 innate capacity a person might have for remembering, that’s
 nothing compared to how much he can learn by practice.

All
 of Ericsson’s research and findings were put together
 in an 800-page book titled The
 Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. The bottom line: “Talent
 is highly overrated.”

Do
 what you want to do, Ericsson advises. Even if that means
 pursuing something for which you have no evident talent. “A 
lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they
 were born with,” Ericsson told The New
York Times. “But there is surprisingly little hard
 evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional
 performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.”

That
 doesn’t mean all people have equal potential. Some people
 – like my neighbor’s child (who is singing opera at age nine)
 or Renato – seem to be “hard wired” at birth with
 a facility for certain skills. But in order to realize their
 potential, they will have to put in many hours of practice.
 And if they don’t, they can easily be surpassed by someone
 who has no natural talent.

That’s
 one of the important messages in Ericsson’s book: Anyone
 can learn to be good at pretty much anything so long as he
 has the time and tenacity to practice doing it.

Of
 course, it can’t be just any sort of practice, Ericsson warns.
 It must be what he calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate
 practice involves more than repeating a specific task. To
 achieve the kind of expert performance we’re talking about:

1.
You have to set specific goals.

2. You have to get immediate feedback on your efforts.

3. You have to concentrate on technique as outcome.

As
 I said, this confirms what I’ve been saying or years.

1.
 Setting specific goals

The more specific your goal is, the more
 likely you will be to achieve it. In The
 Success Principles, author Jack Canfield
 explains how to set ultra-specific goals:

*
 Instead of “I want a new oceanfront house,” say “I’ll
 own a 4,000 sq. ft. house in Malibu one year from today.”

*
 Instead of “I’m desperate to lose some weight,” say “I’ll
 weigh 185 lbs. by 5 p.m. on Jan. 1.”

*
 Instead of “I need to treat my employees better,” say “I
 will acknowledge at least six employees for their contributions
to the department by 5 p.m. this Friday.”

2.
Getting immediate feedback on your efforts

Getting
 feedback usually means working with a mentor. These experts can help you in several ways: They chart a course of instruction
 for you to follow. They correct you every time you veer off
 course. And they pretty much force you to keep track of your
 progress.

Getting
 expert help when you are learning a new skill will shorten
 your learning curve dramatically and thus significantly reduce
 the time (and sometimes money) you have to invest in it.
 It will also greatly reduce the frustration that comes with 
learning anything new – and that might keep you from giving
 up.

The 
very best athletes, entertainers, and business leaders all
 have someone in their corner that they can go to for advice,
 leadership, and teaching. So, if you don’t already have one,
 make it a goal to find a mentor who will help fine-tune your
 game, hold you accountable, and who is not afraid to criticize
 when necessary.

3.
Concentrating on technique as outcome

This
 is a subtle qualification. What it means – I think – is that,
 in practicing a skill, you should concentrate on the correct
 execution of that skill and not so much on the rewards you
 will enjoy once the skill is fully mastered. In other words,
 the reward for accomplishing any specific technique should
 be the psychological satisfaction of knowing that you’ve
 mastered it.

This
 is, more or less, how behavior modification
 specialists work. And I talked about it in an essay I wrote called “The Jazz Master’s Secret.” Here’s what I said:

The
 jazz master was blues guitarist Howard Roberts, who claimed 
that the secret of his virtuosity was to “never practice 
a mistake.” His theory was that any learning is the biological process of creating neural networks in the brain.
 Every perfect repetition beats a good path – one that you
 can travel on later. Every incorrect repetition beats a parallel
 but incorrect path – one that you can easily slide onto if
 you aren’t careful. The more you practice the right moves,
 the deeper the memory path. The trick is to make the correct
 paths as deep as possible and the incorrect paths shallow
 or nonexistent.

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