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Practice Makes Permanent

Practice something wrong and you'll simply become good at doing it wrong. How do you keep the wrong things from setting in stone? Add one word to correct this common phrase...

Jordan Ryskamp
Jordan Ryskamp
5 min read
Practice Makes Permanent

When I was learning to write as a kid, I kept switching hands. The pencil would be in my left hand for one sentence, and the next would be in my right. Then I would alternate with every word or exercise. While this was an impressive feat to switch, it had one significant drawback: my handwriting was terrible.

It was barely legible.

My first math assignment and an example of my "impeccable" handwriting. I transposed a "J" into a "ᒋ". 

I was so enthralled with the novelty of going back and forth. None of my other siblings could do it; it made me special. But the simple truth was that my writing ability wasn't progressing. My mother noticed this and asked me to choose a hand to stick with. I refused to pick. Switching how I wrote was more fun than improving or getting the work done1.

So, after weeks of indecision and lack of progress, my mother decided for me: I would learn to write with my right hand. If I wanted to write with my left hand, I would need pick that up later.

It felt good to have direction and focus on one side. My handwriting slowly improved over the next few months but that only started after that fateful decision.

As time went on, I became more and more comfortable with writing with my right hand. However, most everything else I did, was done with my left hand. I throw lefty. I shoot lefty. I kick lefty.

But then, on the other hand (pun intended), I would use my right hand for other things: holding a cup, golfing, and anything requiring precision. Oh, and I used to bowl with either hand when I was in high school (unconsciously switching between hands).

My mom has told me she feels bad about picking a hand for me. I'm not mad. Honestly, it's the perfect blend of benefits to me:

  • I've completely avoided the worst drawback of being lefty: erasing what I just wrote on a whiteboard or smudging pencil on my hand.
  • Playing offense in ultimate frisbee throws off the defenders used to protecting against right-handers.
  • My position in soccer was advantageous. I'd always play the left side of the field and be able to cross or shoot without having to switch.
  • I can still use scissors without my fingers getting hurt from the mismatch grips.
  • I usually win duels in Throw Throw Burrito because I can get a different angle than most people.

As I said, it's the perfect combination, and I'm grateful for the multi-handedness.

Where was the defining point in my dexterous development?

It was the moment I started to practice writing with my right hand. Before this moment, everything was still fluid. It had the potential to go either way, but also going nowhere.

You've heard it said that "practice makes perfect." That's not true.

If you practice the right thing over time, it will usually improve. If you practice wrong over and over, it won't get better. Practice is like setting cement around the form of an action. If the form isn't correct, the concrete will lock that in. It takes time to fully set, but it will take significant work or demolition to revise it.

Practice makes permanent.  

Once I started to practice my handwriting with a fixed side, I improved and became more locked in. By the time I was a teenager, my left-handed attempts to write looked more like drunk hieroglyphics than letters, numbers, and words.

While evidenced in the maturing of my penmanship, it holds true in many other areas of life. Whether it's your habits, your tendencies, your selections, your choices, etc, you will find your continual actions settling in place.

Our habits define us. The patterns we have each and every day become a permanent part of our lives. This isn't bad. They help us conserve mental energy and focus our attention on situations with unique challenges.

Think about driving. When teenagers first get their learner's permit, they struggle with keeping track of the necessary driving competencies: checking mirrors, maintaining speed, blinker use, lane position, merging, and more. But, after two years of driving, they have greater competency, and things start to go on mental autopilot. After 10 years, so much has been inwardly automated that they don't think about it. It's all become a set of habits.

Think about driving again, this time in a negative light. Suppose someone is taught that a blinker isn't essential or that traveling in the passing lane is okay (I'm looking at you, Maryland). In that case, the consistent repetition will engrain those behaviors. Practice something wrong, and you'll simply become good at doing it wrong.

How do you keep the wrong things from becoming set in stone?

Add one word to correct this common misconception:

Evaluated practice makes perfect.

If we evaluate what we do or have someone else check our defaults, we can avoid the trap of getting stuck in a rut. Find people who can call you out. We're all stuck in habits and patterns that are mostly hidden from ourselves.

I also think about organizations that don't have any way to measure execution or poor performance. Picture an entire company is operating on everyone's default autopilot and has no form of evaluation. They will be invisibly guided by this over mission or objectives. This isn't to say there aren't high-functioning groups that do well on autopilot; there are. But, they're not living up to the full potential of what's possible through evaluated practice.

This is why sports teams have coaches. The players can't always see the big picture or the blind spots they have about their abilities. They're on autopilot. If the coaches only showed up to the game, they couldn't correct poor performance.

Coaches use the practice and watch tape to turn off the autopilot, adjust behavior, and have the group practice a set of actions correctly until it's unconsciously embedded. By being present and focused during practices, coaches can develop individual players and their abilities. Then, they can develop the team as a whole. The whole group will eventually operate with one heartbeat and see beyond their own defaults.

Through practice, we win the game, long before ever stepping on the field. As long as it is evaluated and acted on.

It's in the practice that we win at work or our personal habits, so long our actions are reviewed and evolve.

Ditch the belief that simple practice will make something perfect.

Practice makes permanent. Evaluated practice makes perfect.

1 "Done is better than perfect". This is another maxim that will be coming at a later date.

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