Practice makes better

In my blog “Better is Better than Perfect,” I talk about how practice used to make me crazy. As a young girl, I took piano lessons. The lessons were fine. Playing the piano was fun. Learning to read music was exciting. The occasional competitions got my juices flowing.
 
None of that overcame my personal hell called “piano practice.” My mother nagged me and then restricted me and then told the teacher on me. Not that she needed to be told. The piano teacher knew. She was no fool. In fact, she was an outstanding teacher who could have helped me become a concert pianist.
 
My hands could learn to play the notes – but my mindset was way too self-limiting in those years to become great.
 
My young mind wanted to be perfect at the outset. I hated mistakes! There was no way I would embark on a journey of the thousands, if not millions, of mistakes it would require to become a concert pianist.
 
This perfection mindset permeated every aspect of my life. (Except maybe cleaning my room.) For example, when I went to the roller-skating rink, I measured how much fun I had based on how many times I fell down. Less was always better.
 
If I was measuring my learning, I would have embraced the falls as progress in my learning. But no, not to this young mind. I was measuring mistakes.
 
So I quit piano in order to avoid practice. I had some lame excuses about a busy social life, wanting to study and other lame reasons, but the truth was I hated to practice.
During one of my first visits to Coble Ski School, former world champion April Coble Eller got on a trick ski and did some flips. She made it look easy. When she got off the water, she said “That flip took me 500 falls to learn.”
 
If she had chosen to follow the young Lynn view of practice and mistake, she would never had learned those flips, or any of the other skills that made her a world champion.
 

My favorite thing about the word “practice” is the implication that whatever you are practicing is a work in progress rather than a finished masterpiece. Just using the word practice has a way of giving permission to play with something, try new things, and make mistakes.
 
Sounds lovely. But the truth is, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with practice.
 
Unfortunately, just because practice is a good thing doesn’t stop me from rushing to the end goal. For me, practicing has become a lifelong journey of learning to take things one moment at a time, so that I can actually learn rather than stay locked in place. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
 
Later in life, I married a man with an old piano and started plunking again. Soon I was playing. And before I knew it, practice took on a whole new meaning. In order to actually play well, practice was required.
 
Something had shifted inside me to make practice not just palatable but desirable.
 
Fast forward thirty years and now I love it when I can’t do something. Where once not being able to do something caused me to turn away from it, now I’m more likely to turn into it. My first attempts at watercolor painting were disasters. Trying to ski the course in water skiing was a dismal failure. (My first time at ski school I hit my head and had to get stitches.)

Walking more than 2 miles in my mountainous town caused unbelievable pain. Learning the throw pottery almost made me throw the clay across the room. The chin up bar was too high and my body too heavy to consider even one pull up. When I went back to riding horses, I got thrown and spent 3 days in the hospital.

Now I sell my watercolors. I run the ski course on a regular basis. I walk four miles and more in the hills around my house. I throw big, beautiful pieces. I can do several unassisted chin ups in a row. I take weekly horseback riding lessons. My list of once-failures, now-successes continues to grow.
 
So what changed? I changed my mind about practice.
 
In order to get better – at anything – practice is essential. Yet it is all too easy to take the safe path and do what has worked before.
 
We are all practicing all of the time. Think about it. Every day you make decisions, hold conversations, live by your values, choose how to see a situation, and do any of the other things that make up a life. You are practicing. The question is, are you getting any better at those things? Perhaps you are improving. But are you getting measurably better? Are you really going for it, like an athlete would go for a new personal best? Do you have that charge that makes it exciting to live a bit on the edge, to know that you are pushing yourself and stretching your limits? For many of us, the answer to that question is no.
 
I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare… Always there should be a little mistake here and there – I am for it. The people who don’t do mistakes are cold like ice. It takes risk to make a mistake. If you don’t take risk, you are boring.    Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz
 
Many of us live a flat line in our jobs. We are boring and locked in ice. We know how to do the basics: have conversations, run meetings, make decisions, assess a situation, state our values.
 
But trying to be better in a corporate context is very different than trying to be better as an athlete, artist or performer. Why?
 
Because the environment is not quite as friendly towards mistakes and practice. Most companies set an expectation of “flawless execution” or six sigma or other methods that try to drive mistakes out of the pipeline. For lots of good reasons, they would rather have a stable path to perfection rather than a learning path to innovation.
 
So how can one become an individual learner in an environment that doesn’t support it?

I’ve found that answer is practices, use here as a noun rather than a verb.

 
What is a practice? It’s something you regularly do that is designed to turn a thought into a reality.
 
For example, in the book Hardwiring Excellence, Quint Studer describes the practice of writing thank you notes to people expressing gratitude. We often think about gratitude; a regular practice of writing thank you notes turns that thought into reality.
 
In my coaching practice (notice that word again?), I’ve found that just committing to have regular practices starts the momentum towards change. One of the first practices I will often add to a leader’s repertoire is meditation. There are lots of types of meditation. People ask me which one they should do. My answer? The one you will do as a regular practice.
 
You already have a lot of practices in your life. I bet you brush your teeth. Doing it regularly helps you avoid the social stigma that comes with non-brushed teeth.
 
True change can come about with both practice and practices.
 
What do you regularly practice? What practices have made the most different for you? Where would you like to be better? What stops you from making the changes you want to make?

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