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.