Practice makes perfect is a phrase you hear all the time, but no one is perfect. The fact is though, if you practice, you will become better at whatever you do. I have spent many hours practicing different skills and I have learned that even when it appears that you are making little to no progress, there is progress being made. Sometimes it can seem like you are not progressing, because you have reached a temporary failure point, but that is just a part of the path to success. This is the counter-intuitive aspect of acquiring a new skill, making improvements, or reaching for a goal: there is usually some time in which you end up going backwards before you then leap forwards.
A great visual example of this is from the time I got a new keyboard called a Kinesis Pro. It uses the standard QWERTY layout, but the keys are separated and curved making it more difficult to strike the correct keys. In addition to the spacing, the backspace and space bar and other ancillary keys are in completely different spots. Using this keyboard was like learning how to type all over again. It wasn’t exactly from scratch, but I went from consistently being able to type over 100 words per minute (WPM) to only being able to type around 80 WPM.
Fortunately, learning typing has changed a lot since I was in 6th grade and there is an amazing website called Type Racer that actually makes it fun to type. As you can see in the image above, you have an icon of a car and you compete against other people’s cars to cross the finish line first. The car goes forward when you correctly type the words on the screen. The competition aspect definitely gives you a reason to continue and you feel awesome when you win against someone who is higher rated or who has constantly beat you. All of the content is excerpts from books, movies and songs, which makes it enjoyable to type. It helped me practice for hours and hours on end, much to the chagrin of my coworking neighbors.
You can see in the above picture that my typing score fluctuates up and down over 1000 races, sometimes dramatically. So if I decided to quit when I was at a local minimum, when it looked like my speed was declining, I may not have realized that I was in the midst of a long-run trend of improvement all the way from 80 WPM up to 120 WPM. If I had given up or quit practicing at that low point, I never would have created the data points that show the improvement. It is important to remember this when you are working at any skill or towards any goal. The science behind the idea that long-term practice will lead to improvement is embodied in the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell constantly refers to in his book Outliers. I will discuss that more in depth later on, but I want to make the point clear that just because you feel you are at a low point, does not mean you are really at a low point, you have to persevere and continue through whatever trough you are in.
This is especially important to remember when you are an entrepreneur because sometimes you may think you are at a low point, but it is really just like one of those local minimums on my typing chart. Check out the well known Startup Curve and it’s “Trough Of Sorrow” below:
The “Trough of Sorrow” refers to the time after a startup is launched, but before any real traction is attained. At first there might be some excitement and press, which in this graph is the “TechCrunch of Initiation,” but after that there is a wearing off of the novelty and then it seems like you have hit a minimum. It is the ability to weather this and the successive troughs and minipeaks that will determine whether you make it to promised land of success. It takes a lot of ups-and-downs in any business before you find success and so you need to treat everything you do as practice. You are practicing at succeeding, but even in practicing for success, you are going to fail continually. The beauty of continuing forward and practicing success is that there is the same rise in the long-term trend towards your goal, the problem is that it can be masked by those local minimums and dips. You need to keep your vision on the goal and not on the individual trials. In other words, you need to focus less on the battles and more on the war. No one wins every single time. No one bats 1000. There is no way that every race I typed out would end up with me increasing my score, it’s just not feasible or realistic to believe that I would be successful everytime. There has to be some down before you can go up. And you have to keep that thought in mind with everything you do because you will not win every race, you will not do well with every idea, you will not always be successful, but that’s okay because what you are doing is part of a longer trend where you will win and where you will be successful. You are practicing for success, and you are constantly getting better at it.
I previously mentioned the 10,000 Hour Rule, which is a theory popularized by Malcom Gladwell, which states that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to truly master any skill. An example used in his book is of The Beatles. Before The Beatles were famous, they spent 4 years performing at tourist bars in Hamburg, Germany. They played two 4-hour sets, with 30-minute breaks, 7 nights a week. The idea is that while doing this, they had to come up with so many songs, and fill so much air time, and spend so much time playing together that they easily surpassed 10,000 hours of practice. Here is how Lennon put it:
[During our trips to Hamburg,] We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at everyone. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.
And here is how a well-known Beatles biographer, Phillip Norman, put it:
“They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” Norman went on. “They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”
The Beatles spent that time practicing. They had some terrible and embarrassing shows, but they kept going, kept playing and kept practicing. The Beatles did not know they were bound to keep on going all the way to the top, but if they had stopped because they reached local points of failure, they would never reached their point of success.
So whether you’re The Beatles, learning to type, or running a startup, keep in mind that you are going to need to consistently practice. It’s going to be a lot more practice than you can imagine and it’s going to take a lot longer than you expect, but as long as you keep practicing and keep pushing forward you will succeed. So even though practicing doesn’t make you perfect, just keep practicing and whatever you do, and you’ll get better. Just don’t stop.