Why We Forget That Practice Makes Perfect

By Liz Bentley

I was asked to run a seminar for a sales team recently and the CEO specifically requested that I include a segment on the importance of practice since she felt it was an area that could be improved upon. I connected to this immediately as I have been emphasizing it throughout my coaching career. And since I have played competitive sports my entire life, the importance of practice has always resonated with me. But what I have found so interesting is how adults disconnect from it in their work and personal lives. What I often see is that people want to be good at what they do immediately. They expect to do well without really understanding the amount of time and effort it really takes to be considered “good” let alone “great.”

In general, our society accepts that practice makes sense in sports. When we’re young, we know that if we want to get good in a sport, we have to spend a lot of time and sometimes money practicing and getting lessons to improve our skills. As adults we still embrace this concept in the realm of sports and leisure activities. For example, golfers, tennis players, and skiers are willing to spend time and money on practicing, taking lessons, and studying new skills to improve their abilities. But somehow we don’t easily translate this into the workplace even though the same principles apply.

Here are 5 common mistakes that I’ve found people make when it comes to practice:

Mistake #1: We Assume We Don’t Need Practice

Most people struggle with the concept of practice in the middle of their career. When starting out, they know they are growing and acquiring new skills. Hiccups in their progress are expected and they have a general understanding of their trajectory. When people hit the middle or later part of their career, they tend to stop growing and don’t see the need to practice. They have a sense that the skills that got them there are everlasting and that they are now supposed to be experts, especially when they are leading big teams or are in C-suite positions. However, to be a great leader in your field, the learning can never stop. The saying coined by Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there,” exemplifies the understanding that the skills it takes to climb the ladder do not get you off the plateau once your career has leveled off.

Mistake #2: We Don’t Realize We Have To Become Uncomfortable To Grow

As Ginny Rommi, CEO of IBM, says, “Growth and comfort do not coexist.” Acquiring and practicing new skills – skills that are different from what you’re used to – will undoubtedly change your normal routine and create discomfort. In my coaching practice, when clients first come to me, they know something isn’t quite right but they don’t know what it is. Through the coaching, they uncover their challenges and sometimes this makes them feel worse at first because now they really know what they are doing wrong. As we work together and they improve and practice new habits, they start to feel great. There is no growth without moving out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself.

Mistake #3: We Don’t Know What To Practice

Practice falls into two main categories: efficiency and human improvements. Efficiency improvements are improvements that focus on your skill set and intellectual intelligence. For example, this would involve developing technology skills, reading about market trends and discovering process improvements. Human improvements focus on enhancing your emotional intelligence. This would involve your ability to get along with difficult personalities, speak up when needed, manage conflict and negotiate well, change other people’s mindsets, and navigate office politics.

Mistake #4: We Practice the Wrong Way

As Vince Lombardi liked to say, “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Much has been written and studied on this fact. If you go to the golf range and you slice the ball to the right with almost every hit, you have just practiced how to hit wrong. To practice our performance at work and in our life the right way, we need feedback so that we are not working in the dark and can discover what needs improvement. Many times people think they know what they need to improve but are not correct or worse are completely unaware of what needs to be practiced. In many cases, it is the latter; people are not even practicing what they need to be working on the most.

Mistake #5: We Are Impatient and Give Up

Improving your performance at work and in life takes a lot of practice and time. All of these take discipline, the willingness to be vulnerable, the ability to admit you need to improve, and resilience – the basic understanding that you may not be good at it at first. These are your keys to success. If you need to practice something then remember that you will not be good at it on the first try. It will take a lot of practice to improve but the improvements will most certainly come.

Going Forward

To get on the road to success in your life and business, you should:

  1. Uncover what you need to do to grow in your career and figure out the skills and relationships you need to practice in order to make the improvements.
  2. Make goals so you know what success looks like when you get there and measure it.
  3. Make a practice routine that makes sense for the goals.
  4. Evaluate your success and make adjustments as necessary.
  5. Keep practicing until you get it right.

We all need to be practicing something in our lives; no one escapes this reality at any age. That is part of growing and evolving. My 80-year-old mother is the perfect example. She found out that learning a second language would improve her memory so she practices Spanish all the time and is now fluent. Remember that many successes come from hard work, practice, resilience, and the willingness to fail a lot before you succeed. As my brother loves to say, 31 teams lose in the NFL every year. Only one team wins the Super Bowl. But that opportunity to win just once is worth every minute of hard work and practice. It makes all the difference.