Practice vs. Performance


It is one of the most boring truisms on the planet: “Practice makes perfect.” It is also one of the most misleading. Practice merely ingrains certain patterns after deciding on the best course of action after constant criticism and problem-solving.

Performance requires that the body forget the work required to ingrain the pattern and let the pattern happen. Performance requires that we drop all criticism and technical considerations. These two activities are vastly different.

The transition from practice to performance, it turns out, is a matter of belief. I was thinking about this today after reading Seth Godin’s blog. Godin is a fantastic management and leadership expert who also happens to know a lot about performance. Here is what he said.

Is there anything easier than listening to a lecture or reading a book and taking notes? And is there anything more difficult than setting aside our preconceptions and the resistance and acting ‘as if’, being open to belief, at least for a moment?

Practicing is like taking notes. You are trying to ingrain patterns in the brain. At some point you have to decide that the ingraining process is complete and just go take the test. You have to trust your preparation.

Another writer I really like is James Clear, a fitness expert and all-around wise man when it comes to making real change. Here is a bit of one of the central tenents of his philosoph.

Changing your beliefs isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. There are two steps.

1. Decide the type of person you want to be.

2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

Suppose you are a patient whose doctor has told you that you need to make some lifestyle change for the good of your health. You go and read every book ever written about this change, talk to five different experts, and draw up a fool-proof plan that you have memorized. None of these things is worth anything unless you decide “I am the kind of person who integrates this life-style change into his everyday life.”  You have to take the knowledge (practice) and turn it into belief (performance).

Say you are a nurse who is trying to decide whether or not to go to medical school.  You read all the books. (Actually there really aren’t any on this subject although I’m working on one. I haven’t quite gotten to the stage of believing I’m the kind of person who can write a book.) You talk to all the experts.  You consult with people who have made the transition. You decide medical school is indeed the best choice for you for all of the right reasons (a life-time project in itself). None of this makes any difference unless you decide “I am the kind of person who can successfully complete medical school.” Knowledge, and choice, into belief.

Or perhaps the contrary. You decide that you are happy in nursing. You don’t want to change. You’ve done the research and made your choice. Fine. Same thing.  You’ve done the work, now commit to and believe in the choice you’ve made.

Maybe you are a young person from a foreign country and you would like to live and work in the United States. You research your (legal) options, talk to friends who have been to the US, interview people who have done the job you’re interested in.  You’re not going anywhere unless you decide “I am the kind of person who can move thousands of miles from my family in pursuit of new experiences.” Choice into belief.

Say you play a musical instrument and you want to get a good orchestra job. You practice for 20 years, put in your focused 10,000 hours. None of those hours count unless you can stop the self-evaluation you have been perfecting for 10,000 hours and trust that those hours have ingrained the necessary patterns and that, at the moment of performance, no more self-evaluation is needed. You just play.

If you’ve done the work, just play.

Image copyright: Decorative Scales of Justice, thinkstock

Article last time updated on 19.07.2016.

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