Practice Makes Perfect Professionals

What’s the largest number of people you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of?

I am one of the worship leaders in my church. We take turns on a rotating schedule. On any weekend, whoever is leading also gets to direct the band. One Sunday morning, I was leading. I may have been playing bass, too. Playing the intro, ready to begin, I was having trouble syncing up with the drums. I couldn’t catch the downbeat. The kick was on 2 and 4-and, only a shy little high-hat on the 1 beat. I talked to the drummer to get things straight, asked him where “one” was. Then I realized, I was talking into the microphone.

When you’re playing on-stage, you have to coordinate in real-time with the other musicians. But that day I realized, I want to coordinate without the aid of a 300-watt amplifier. The problem is that during practice, I as director had been using the mic to give directions. So when the pressure was on, live on stage, my subconscious did what it was used to.

As a musician, I learned early the value of practice. Practice does not necessarily mean you do the same boring thing over and over. Rather, it means you stretch yourself, step outside your current abilities. You do this in a safe environment, where making a mistake is okay. Then when the pressure’s on, your subconscious will take over, and you’ll do it like a pro. You’ll make the difficult look easy.

Sometimes a new musician or vocalist will join our little church band. And if they’re young and inexperienced, they usually feel afraid of making mistakes. I always tell them, it’s okay to make mistakes, especially during practice. That’s what practice is for, to learn new songs, to do things we haven’t done before. We all play wrong notes during practice, or we try to sing higher than our voices will go, or we do stupid things like clapping to a slow song. (I did that last weekend.) But the reason we have practice sessions is to try things and see what works. And what does work, we learn. And when Sunday morning rolls around, we sound damn good! (I’m awful proud of our little worship team.)

Back to my embarrassing incident. From that day on, I stopped using the mic to give direction, even during practice. Now I have a different problem, I have to shout sometimes to be heard above the din. But I haven’t embarrassed myself in that way again.

Practice makes perfect. What you practice, you will do. So it’s important to practice the techniques you want to use. Practice them when you’re not under stress, so that when the pressure’s on, you’ll be able to do them naturally.

Steve Pavlina posts that this is true even of getting up in the morning. It makes perfect sense to me, and I’m going to try his suggestion. When you’re just getting up, foggy and half-asleep, your subconscious will kick in and do what it is used to. For many of us, that’s rolling over and going back to sleep. But if you want your body actually to get up when the alarm goes off in the morning, practice doing it during the day while you’re still awake.

I apply this to every technique I want to use. As a software engineer, even when I can’t write automated unit-tests, I use the test-first model of development. First, determine how to test the new change. Then run the test. See that the test fails (or, if I’m refactoring, that it passes). Make the change. Rerun the test to confirm that it now passes. When all tests pass, I’m done!

Another example: Since I have aspirations of being a manager, I’ve been giving feedback wherever I can, to my coworkers, to my band mates, to my daughters, using the feedback model Mike and Mark talk about on Manager Tools. It’s a simple technique that produces immediate results, even if you’re not a manager. But I’m practicing it in easy situations, the easy-going circumstances we encounter day-to-day. By the time a tense situation occurs, it’ll be second nature to me.

So practice, practice, practice. Then you’ll make it look easy.


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[…] Reading that blog today, led me to read his post on how Practice Makes Perfect Professionals. It hit a chord; I realized how I have fallen into bad habits by simply repeating them — and similarly, how I’ve fostered good habits (and defeated bad ones!) by doing the exact same thing: repeating them. […]

To help the “Unconscious effort” I put the alarm clock across the room. I have to turn it off before it wakes my Wife, so I’m out of bed before I think about sleeping in.

If you can similate this with the Practice Makes Perfect Professionals, some urgency (perhaps pet peeves), then maybe it’d help.

Hi, James. I’ve tried that. The problem I’m having is that even after I get up, even after I stretch, even after I walk across the room and turn off the alarm, even after I walk into the next room or down the stairs, I still have a tendency to lay down and fall back to sleep. Then my sleeping schedule begins to slip later and later. I need some event that I can associate with permanently waking up. Maybe splashing cold water on my face or something. 🙂

That’s actually a serious idea I think I will try. The times when I wake up the quickest are those when I have an exciting project I want to get to or an urgent commitment. At those times, a burst of adrenaline seems to push the morning stupor right out of the way. Maybe a physically shocking event, like cold water, will achieve the same result, at least long enough for my body to train itself to associate that with getting up in the morning.


I guess since I’m married, I don’t want to catch any grief from my wife. When I hit the floor to get to the alarm, I’m not even awake yet.

The interesting thing is, that if you force yourself long enough, your internal clock will start getting you up. I personally woke up 10 minutes before the alarm clock went off. If I set the clock ahead an hour so I can ‘sleep in’ I’ll wake up a whole hour before hand.

I just wanted to say ‘hang in there.’ Steve’s advice seems to be very close to how I operate.

Thanks, James. I too am married, and I don’t want to catch grief from my wife, either. Thanks for the encouragement. It’s actually a lot easier for me now than it was several months ago. And I do tend to wake up reasonably early, even without an alarm. But I also tend to oversleep, compared to when I’d like to get up, and to kill the alarm at the slightest inconvenience. This can ruin my morning. I love it when I can get hours of productive work done before the rest of the family even wakes up. 🙂


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