Why do I have to practice?

by Randy Murray on March 30, 2010

To continue with the Week of Why today we’ll talk about practice. Practice is something that artists, musicians, and athletes know all about. They deeply understand that you will spend the bulk of your time practicing.  Very little of it will you spend performing.  But if you’re not an athlete, a musician, or an artist, you might not understand what all the repetition is about.

Here’s the secret: it’s about freedom. You cannot really be free in any task unless you don’t have to constantly think about the process while you’re doing it.  The only way you’ll get to that state is by continual practice.

Some people are confused about the purpose of practice. They might think that practice is something you only need to do to learn a task or skill. Then once you’ve learned it sufficiently, you can stop. I already know how to play the piano: why should I keep practicing? I know how to swing a golf club: why should I go to the driving range?

But if you play the piano or care about your golf game, you’ll understand the purpose of practice is more than just acquiring the basic skill. For the artist or athlete, practice is the reinforcement and development of skills as well as a form of meditation. Recent scientific research shows that to gain world-class talent and mastery it takes 10,000 hours of practice, coaching, and repetition. And after you’ve achieved that level of mastery, it takes continual practice. I highly recommend The Talent Code and I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Gladwell adds his own perspective on the  “10,000 hour rule.”

Why is practice so important? Your brain builds up myelin in response to repetitive practice. Myelin is essentially insulation for your neurons – the more myelin, the faster the signals pass on the correct pathways and the better you perform a task. After 10,000 hours of practice, you can attain what will seem to others to be superhuman levels of skills. And if you keep practicing, you can keep those skills.

You might not be a musician, artist, or athlete, but there are still skills you will need to practice. Writing, presenting and speaking, managing and leading staff, writing code, developing products – these are all skills that require continual practice.

Ask yourself what the skills are that you want to really master. Everyone can find at least one. Once you have selected that skill, set up your plan for practice. I find that practice is the thing that lets me calm down, focus my energies, and prepare myself for other tasks. That’s the benefit of practicing a skill you already have mastered.

And another side of practice that’s equally important is the recognition that you have not yet mastered a skill. Rather than becoming frustrated at your inability to do the task, accept it, embrace it, and practice! It’s remarkably freeing to say, “I’m not very good at this yet, but I’m going to get better!”

I start every day in practice. The first thing I practice is my omelet. I prepare one for my wife and myself every morning. I’ve been doing it for over two years now and I’m very good at it. It takes me about twenty minutes per day. I expect to be the best omelet maker in the world in another eighty-two years.

That’s a long time. But I also practice my writing every day. I’ve been doing that for over thirty years for many hours per day. And I’ve got many more than 10,000 hours under my belt. I still work with mentors, like my editor, Penny, and I still struggle with elements of my art and craft, but I can feel the very real benefits of all the practice. And I can feel my skills grow stronger each time I sit down to write.

You can have this, too. You only need to practice.

What skills do you want to get better at?  How do you practice? I invite you to share your practice experiences in the comments section.

Click here for other post on practice, mastery, and productivity.

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