Does practice make perfect?

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 November 2015

“When I was in school the teachers told me practice makes perfect; then they told me nobody’s perfect so I stopped practising.” Comedian - Steve Wright

So is it worth practising? The answer is ‘Yes’ and here’s why...

Practice is doing something over and over again to embed it into our unconscious repertoire of skills. We know it works from our own experience of practising a skill like driving, or typing, or from sports examples.

But all practice is not equal, and that is where many people fail to use practice successfully. Vince Lombardi, maybe the most famous American football coach said “Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” 

So what constitutes perfect practice? 

If we continually do the same thing and accept the outcome we get without desiring any better outcome, then practice simply makes permanent that which we are practising. The neuroscientists call this Hebbian learning after Donald Hebb who in 1949 said “Let us assume that the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity (or "trace") tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability.… When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A 's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.” The theory is often summarised by Carla Shatz's phrase: "Cells that fire together, wire together".

So practice makes permanent by solidly wiring together our neurons in such a way that we become unconsciously competent at the action/behaviour.

Perfect practice, or maybe a better name for it would be quality practice, involves an extra component. It involves the concept of a gap between the outcome we get when we do the activity, and the outcome we want from the activity. In order for practice to make perfect, there is an implication of change in the action being practised to zero in on the perfect way to do the action. There is an implication of feedback from each repetition that in some way guides changes to the next repetition so that it is closer to what the person practising considers the perfect way to do it.

There is usually this implicit and often unconscious feedback factor present whenever somebody practices anything. This has been referred to as task conscious learning. That is, if someone is mindful of what they are doing and the results their action is getting, they will unconsciously and automatically learn what tweaks are needed, and apply that learning the next time they do the action. At a basic level, this is like an unconscious autocorrect function, and will slowly close the gap between achieved and desired outcome over many repetitions.

Beyond this basic autocorrect function that we all have when we practice something, we can also bring the gap between achieved and desired outcomes into our conscious mind and reflect on how we might close that gap by asking ourselves questions. What happened? how can I change it? where did it start? why am I doing it? and many more. This conscious questioning accelerates the closure of the gap beyond what the autocorrect can do, and this is the reason that reflection is such a vital part of learning. 

So practice only makes ‘perfect’ when there is recognition, and ideally conscious reflection, of the desired outcome and how that differs from the achieved outcome. 

When you are asking people to learn a skill, how can you ensure they get clarity about their desired outcomes, clarity about their achieved outcome, and take the time to reflect between repetitions?


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance improvement.