You’ve heard the old joke…An out of towner is walking the streets of city, lost and confused, when he spots a gentleman with a violin case. Figuring he must be a musician he goes up to the man and asks, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The gentleman replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” To wrap up our mini-series on Perfection, following last weeks post and this week’s Motivation Moment, today we dig into the oft repeated adage, “practice makes perfect,” wonder if it does, and if it doesn’t, why practice at all?
It is not often you find a catchy phrase like “practice makes perfect” that is as at home at Carnegie Hall as it is at Yankee Stadium. Musicians, ball players, airline pilots, everybody who works, practice their trades. They must perform their exercises repeatedly, practicing their swing, mastering that arpeggio, or landing a plane in bad weather, to be able to perform it flawlessly when the concert hall is packed, the plane is full, and the stands are standing room only. But do they ever get to perfection? Or is the pinnacle achievement they can hope for capped at nearly flawless? To answer that we must agree on what is perfection?
Most modern dictionaries define perfect and perfection with qualifiers. The New Oxford Dictionary defines perfection as “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” Others echo the phrase “as free as possible from flaws” or “as proficient or excellent as possible,” or other such limiting clauses. The more classic definition “The condition, state, or quality of being free from defect; flawlessness, faultlessness,” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2022) eliminates such conditions. Indeed, if you were to ask any handful of people, the responses would sound more of a firm expectation of unconditional flawlessness, absolutely free of any defect, for something to be perfect. We argue that no amount of practice will ever elevate one’s performance to absolute flawlessness.
If perfection cannot ever be achieved, what is the point of all that practice? Some may say practice makes progress or practice makes improvement. Progress and improvement both are grounded closer to reality than perfection, but even so, simple rote repetition will not improve your performance or progress you to an optimal expectation. For that, you must also introduce learning. What then can practice do?
Let’s go to the source of the phrase. As with many adages, idioms, proverbs, and good old old wives’ tales, the source is less than clear, but it seems “practice makes perfect” began life as an old Latin phrase “use makes mastery.” Although the words have changed, the result has not. The difference between one who practices, practices, and practices throwing a curve ball or performing a concert from one who tosses around a baseball or knows how to read music is the proficiency of the player. One who practices, practices, practices will definitely gain near total control of the activity. It may not be flawless but it will be masterful.
In a world looking for easy answers and fast track to stardom, riches, or both, “practice makes perfect” may be the “perfect” sound bite. As with most quick quips, there is more to the story. Perfection will never be possible nor will rote repetition lead to improvement, so to simply rely on practice making perfect or making progress or improvement won’t get you to Carnegie Hall. But learning and increasing your understanding, practicing what you already know, and the new things you learn along the way will lead to a more accurate, more skillful, more proficient you.
What does practice make make if it doesn’t make perfect and still is catchier to say than “use makes mastery”? We know…Practice makes a Positive You…masterful at your craft, skillfully navigating the life you have chosen, and learning ways to improve, to make yourself better, every day. Practice makes a positive you!