Practice Makes Better, Forget Perfect

How did you learn to do what you do?

I certainly wasn’t born capable of doing the work I do today.

Like most of us, I learned what I now know due largely to the grace and patience of more experienced people showing me how, and then standing back and watching while I practiced. Sometimes in  I blew it, and shakily, nervously made mistakes that required correction or rework. Sometimes I nailed it and felt seen by the sage experts around me for having some of the skills I needed. Being seen validated my trials and my worth.

In myself and in peers of my age, I notice a tendency to be intolerant of the mess of practice. Talking with a young colleague the other day, I caught myself wishing that he had understood what I wanted the first time so that the piece he created for me would have been finished after one iteration. But realistically, how could he have known? He has never done it before. Can I really expect others to go from knowing nothing to perfect execution without any failure?

It is in the struggle that learning happens. Whether a baby learning to walk by consistently falling down to get her bearings or an employee writing a document the first time that needs revision, it is the adjustment and re-work that creates the connection in the brain that “this is important.” Getting back up facilitates learning how to walk.

When it comes to working with younger, less experienced people, it is essential that we recognize the precious worth of practice. I suggest 4 things to remember if you are a trainer, supervisor, or boss of someone younger:

  1. They will likely do it wrong, or messily, the first time.

This is why we call it learning. Until we do something, we do not know what we are capable of exactly. It is the exercise of executing something and performing that gets us mobilized around what “doing it well” looks like. As a boss, you should spend time thinking about how your employees can “test fly” in ways that are not catastrophic if they do it slightly imperfectly. By the time a musician performs at Carnegie Hall or an athlete competes in the Olympics, they have tried their craft a thousand times and failed often. Let your employees mess up.

  1. Your prompt feedback is essential to learning.

Quickly, compassionately, honestly ask your staff to reflect right away on what they think went beautifully or poorly in the task they completed. They likely know what worked and what didn’t. And here is where you come in: your feedback and ideas about how to do it even better next time are invaluable to their development of experience and wisdom to do it better next time. Immediately debrief. Learn together.

  1. They want to do it.

We all want to do it ourselves. We develop mastery and fluency doing tasks and jobs we feel good about. No one wants to have to be told every time how to do something. I remember my kids when they were in preschool shoving my hand away—they tied their own shoes even if it took twice as long and the knot fell out. Remember this, boss, that their highest and best use is to learn the thing they are learning. Your highest and best use is to serve them as they learn.

  1. You had to do it wrong or messily, too.

You did it (whatever your work is) imperfectly many times before you got really good at whatever it is that you do today. Many caring people gave you feedback and ideas to refine, to grow, and to make your work better over time. Take heart in this. Offer your employees the grace and the space to develop over time, as you yourself did all those years ago.

When we focus on helping employees practice, they learn. When we expect them to do it perfectly, they stop trying and stop risking.

Jim Morris