Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Practice and Perfection

I've been thinking about the different uses of the word "practice."

In endeavors like sports, music, or dance, when we practice, we are working to get better. Practice is a time when it is safe to make mistakes. When we can push ourselves to our limits. When we can fall and get back up. (This same notion of a safe path is also present in mind-body practices such as meditation or yoga or martial arts.)

On the other hand, the practice of law, or medicine, or accounting, does not connote safety. There is tension instead between two ideas. First, that you continue to get better. Second, that you must not make any mistakes along the way. In medicine, mistakes can be a matter of life and death. And many professionals can be sued for malpractice ("bad" or "defective" practice). So the message is be perfect while you are getting better.

When I was with a law firm, the partner who I worked for told me repeatedly that he had never made a mistake. I think he intended this to be helpful. But the resulting pressure was enormous. Today, years later, the pressure is even higher. Because fees are so high now, you also have to be perfect in as few billable hours as possible.

When practice means "the avoiding of mistakes," it leads to very different behavior than when practice means "the safe pursuit of limits." Not coincidentally, the prospect of losing your job if you make a mistake triggers fear, the lizard brain. And it shuts down creativity.

How to embrace this paradox? Those who do are able to set aside their fear. And they do so by building a safety net. Peer review is one great example--a legal opinion can't go out the door without the approval of the other partners, for example. The risks of a controversial surgery must be vetted.

When we open ourselves at work, we can ask advice of a colleague or a mentor. We can also brainstorm within a group. We can try different ways of presenting ideas or a sales pitch and get constructive feedback. In these ways, we can stretch ourselves while minimizing fear. And we can help others to learn and practice, too, so that we all bring our best on game day.

We can build saftey nets no matter what our practice. And knowing that they are there, we can come up with new ideas and more creative solutions. We can push the boundaries. And our practice can be as much about the pursuit of mastery as it is about avoiding mistakes.

When we have found our limit, our edge, the third notion of practice comes into play. Repeating a skill until we know it cold. Rehearsing a piece on the piano. Practicing that presentation or closing argument. To be our best, though, we have to identify that safe edge that is at our current limit. Repitition is the easy part. Finding our limit, though, means that occasionally we are going to fall.

Do you have a safety net? If not, can you build one?


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