Practice is pointless unless…

Yes. You read right. Practice is not effective towards mastery.

We have been conditioned to think that practice is the way to mastering something (such as skills) with quotes especially the popular quote “Practice Makes Perfect”. Some people even modified this by changing the word perfect to progress. Yet, both are misleading.

Practice makes perfect

Not many people know that there is a second part to the above quote which will give a hint why the quote is misleading. The second part also gives us the hint towards what is effective.

The second part of this quote was revealed to me by my late mentor, Mark Hemstedt in a Mastery class that he did years ago. He repeated it when I was being trained to train the trainers of the Malaysian National Service. And this concept was again iterated to me by my design mentor Ken Ito when he headed a design team I was in that was tasked with crafting the pre-national service module.

The second part of this quote is better to read with the first part for us to appreciate the whole quote in its entirety. The two-part quote reads; “Practice makes perfect, therefore, be careful what you practice”. 

Practice makes perfect, therefore …

This quote reminds us that there are different types of practice and that not all practice creates the desired outcome (effective). If we practice what is bad, we will then be very good at it while if we practice what is good, we will be good at that. Therefore, the epiphany is that we must be aware of what we are practising.

The awareness concept in practice leads us to the concept that what makes practice effective is not just any practice but it has to be a deliberate practice where we are aware, mindful and conscious that we are practising something. If we are not conscious or not deliberate in our practice, we might very well end up creating bad habits which are not effective.

So, based on this, it is not practice that improves and make us better or get us to mastery but deliberate practice.

In that case, what is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice is a process and takes the form of a loop. In deliberate practice we first must have intent; why are we practising. Next, we must have the action that we are practising; the what. The next step in deliberate practice is feedback from practitioners that appreciates the same distinction and context as what you are practising. Last in deliberate practice is debrief. From the debrief, a new intent is established and the loop continues.

Deliberate Practice The path to mastery

Out of the 4 criteria of deliberate practice, I feel the last two; feedback and debrief needs a little bit of unpacking because the other three seems to be straightforward and self-explanatory.

Let’s now unpack feedback.

The one query I always get is why must feedback be given by those that appreciate the distinction and context of what is being practised? Can’t feedback be given by those that do not have the same distinction and context as you? Of course, you can. However, the fidelity of the feedback is less. The fidelity of your feedback is determined by two factors; the quantity and quality of the feedback. The quantity provides you with the severity or magnitude pointing to a pattern while the quality of the feedback give specificity. The quality of the feedback is influenced by who is giving the feedback. The quality of the feedback increases significantly if the person giving the feedback base the feedback on shared distinction and context. The quality decreases when it is given by someone who doesn’t know or privy to the distinctions and context of the practice.

Feedback Fidelity

Let’s take for example a chef that is trying out a new dish. He can get some feedback from the customer no doubt because ultimately they are the end-user. However, in improving the dish, the chef will have better input if the feedback is given by other chefs. Achieving Mastery of the new dish requires a high degree of feedback fidelity.

A customer might be able to only give feedback that is limited or shallow like nice, delicious, good, I like it etc. However, another chef can elaborate on what is good, what ingredients is missing or need to be enhanced or what is just right. They can even make suggestions of various ways to reach the desired outcome the chef wants from the new dish. There is more depth in another chef’s feedback because they share the same distinction and context of cooking.

Let us now unpack the last criteria; debrief.

The debrief part of deliberate practice follows the conventional, established phases of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle – reflect on the debrief, make sense of them and decide on the next course of action. Once the debrief is done, we then set our intent and the loop of deliberate practice continues until the desired outcome is eventually met.

As we head toward mastery in various areas of our life, we need to remember and apply deliberate practice and not just practice (or even worse – practice for practice sake) so that we can be effective in our journey.