Practice, practice, practice makes…
A story about the misguided pursuit of perfection in life, design, and music
Perfectionism is prevalent in our current world, with individuals trapped in a never-ending cycle of aspiration and disappointment. The unrelenting pressure to meet unrealistic standards can lead to stress, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy. A culture that prioritizes achievement and external validation only intensifies the quest for perfection, prioritizing flawless outcomes above all else. Yet, the reality is that perfection remains a vague and ever-changing notion, open to subjective interpretation. What one person deems as perfection may not resonate with another’s definition, sparking whether pursuing perfection is a worthy trade-off for personal well-being and contentment.
Moreover, the omnipresence of social media and the cultivation of curated online identities further fuel the perfectionist drive. Constant exposure to idealized portrayals of other people’s lives can trigger feelings of insufficiency, compelling us to measure up. The comparison game becomes effortless as individuals strive to present an outwardly perfect image. The desire for acknowledgment and acceptance propels the chase for perfection as individuals seek external validation to fill the inner void.
The yearning for perfection is oh so enticing — that rosy picture, that daydream, the fantastical answer to the question, “What would I do if I won a $1.73 billion Powerball jackpot?” Despite the awareness that perfection is an unattainable endpoint, its magnetic pull persists. This raises the ultimate question: What is perfection, and why does its pursuit hold such sway over us?
Let’s start with the first question. What is perfection?
As seen above, the first part from Merriam-Webster.com is “the quality or state of being perfect: such as freedom from fault or defect.” Or the third part, “the state of being saintly.”
That means something perfect would be without any faults, defects, flaws, or mistakes — saintly even. That’s tricky; something perfect for one person might not be for someone else, and vice versa. The perfect thing or action will vary depending on individual standards, backgrounds, preferences, and expectations, so perfection is virtually unattainable. Constantly striving for it can lead to disappointment and anxiety, creating a fear of failure and preventing one from starting something or taking risks.
So, why do we chase perfection? It’s like the siren song one hears before a ship crashes into the jagged rocks, so sweet and melodic. It’s alluring because it represents the ideal version of something, whether a person, an object, or a situation. It’s a concept often associated with success, achievement, and excellence. People may feel that if they can achieve perfection, they will be more happy, more successful, and more fulfilled, as it can provide a sense of structure and order in an uncertain world.
The problem is whose perfect we’re mapping to. Is it mine? Yours? A client’s? That idea, hazy in the distance, is entirely subjective and will look and feel different for all parties. Does perfect mean completely and utterly original, unlike anything else the world has seen before? Is it about getting a million users to sign up for your service? Is it something beautiful?
And what about practice?
The path to achieving our highest quality work is through iteration and reworking. We can produce something that stands out by repeatedly practicing and improving upon a task or project until we reach a specific goal. This level of contribution, however, can only be achieved once we’ve shipped the work — a concept we’ll delve into more deeply in the following sections.
Rather than use perfection as our goal, we should develop our own success criteria and use it instead. In other words, determine the measure individually and, if applicable, within the larger group. And then use iteration as the engine that gets us there. And iteration means repeatedly working on and refining a process or product. In and of itself, this is the driving force behind success. Using key performance indicators (KPIs), we can identify improvement areas and measure progress toward specific goals.
As we delve into the notion of iteration, it’s hard to resist a classic anecdote that humorously encapsulates this principle. You’ve probably heard it before:
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice.
Instead of giving physical directions to the renowned concert venue at 881 Seventh Avenue between West 56th and 57th Streets in New York City, humorously suggests that achieving the level of expertise required to perform there demands relentless practice and unwavering dedication. Carnegie Hall, since its grand opening in 1891, has witnessed countless iconic performances, including Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking jazz debut in 1938, Billie Holiday’s 1955 rendition of “Lady Sings the Blues,” Leonard Bernstein’s captivating interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony №2 alongside the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and The Beatles’ first American concert, a mere three days following their memorable appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.
Whatever your job, this age-old riddle underscores a universal truth: practice, or in other words, the art of iteration, is the cornerstone of success. With each repetition, professionals gain experience, navigating various scenarios and challenges. This voyage contributes to profound comprehension and enhanced skill over time. Regular practice refines efficiency, effectiveness, confidence, and mastery of one’s craft. The delightful twist is that this journey may even lead you to venues as illustrious as Carnegie Hall.
These fundamental principles of iteration, practice, and growth transcend professional boundaries. They are the common threads weaving through various disciplines, from product design to teaching and accounting. The rhythm of repetition, production, and evaluation in all these domains orchestrates progress. This rhythm is aptly illustrated by Malcolm Gladwell’s renowned “10,000-hour rule,” introduced in his 2005 book “Outliers.” The concept posits that roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated practice are requisite for mastering any field. Gladwell’s premise is grounded in the idea that persistent, focused practice over an extended period is the key to unlocking success. This theory underscores the notion that natural talent alone cannot secure achievement; steadfast effort and unwavering commitment are equally vital to attaining true expertise.
It’s worth noting that the age-old adage “practice makes perfect” traces its origins back to the 1550s, with the earliest recorded version stemming from the Spanish phrase “La práctica hace al maestro,” roughly translating to “practice makes a master.” This phrase eventually found its way into English, becoming a popular saying in the 1600s. Interestingly, the original phrase aligns more closely with Gladwell’s 10,000-hour principle than its English counterpart.
Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Gladwell’s theory, while illuminating, may oversimplify the intricate process of skill development. While deliberate practice undeniably forms the bedrock of mastery, it’s not the sole determinant. Other variables, such as inherent talent, environmental conditions, and access to resources and opportunities, also factor into success in a given field. The quality of practice, often overlooked, is just as pivotal, if not more so, than quantity. Mindlessly repeating a task for 10,000 hours may yield different results than purposeful, guided practice infused with constructive feedback.
The pursuit of perfection, deeply intertwined with the quest for mastery, indeed follows a winding road of iteration and growth. In this article, we’ll explore how the relentless drive for perfection in the design world can be a guiding light or a deceptive trap, offering insights into navigating this complex journey with wisdom and balance.
Raymond Scott, born in 1908 and passed away in 1994, was an American composer, bandleader, and electronic music pioneer. He made significant contributions to both traditional music and electronic music. Scott was known for composing and arranging music for big bands and orchestras early in his career. His jazz compositions and innovative arrangements gained him recognition in the music world. Modern audiences would know his music from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons as well as sampled in a variety of songs like Devo’s “Jocko Homo”, US3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”, and J Dilla’s “Lightworks.” However, what sets Scott apart is his later foray into the realm of electronic music, a venture that epitomized the principles of iteration and continuous idea generation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Scott became captivated by the possibilities of electronic music. He embarked on a quest to build the Electronium, a groundbreaking machine to generate and manipulate music electronically. This machine was revolutionary for its time, employing analog and digital technology. It allowed Scott to create complex, algorithmically generated compositions, prefiguring the concept of algorithmic and generative music that has become popular in contemporary electronic music.
The Electronium was not just a musical instrument but a tool for constant experimentation. It represented a remarkable marriage of art and technology, reflecting Scott’s deep-rooted belief in continuous exploration and innovation. In many ways, the Electronium’s development embodied the iterative process. Scott was constantly fine-tuning the machine, generating new musical ideas, and pushing the boundaries of what electronic music could achieve.
Listen to 99% Invisible where they feature an episode of The Last Archive (from Pushkin Industries) about Raymond Scott and the Electronium: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/player-piano/
While Mark Mothersbaugh, from Devo, is currently working on Scott’s machine to bring it back to life, the Electronium illustrates how a commitment to iteration and the continuous generation of ideas can lead to groundbreaking innovations. Scott’s pioneering contributions to electronic music and tireless experimentation with the Electronium laid the foundation for many developments in electronic music, showcasing the power of persistence and the pursuit of perfection in creative endeavors.
Zooming out, practice or iteration is intricately tied to the continuous generation of ideas, frequently converging with creativity.
While I’ll zero in on design as a prime example, this principle extends its reach into numerous domains such as music, culinary arts, science, technology, healthcare, architecture, education, and writing. Designers, for instance, are tasked with perpetually enhancing their skills, staying attuned to emerging trends, and endless exploration of the latest resources to cater to user preferences and business imperatives.
At the heart of this iterative process lies ideation or practice. This is where fresh, imaginative concepts emerge, driven by a profound comprehension of the target audience. Kicking off with a robust research foundation, including methods like user interviews, scrutiny of customer service interactions, alignment with business objectives, and an analytical dive into website or app usage, offers a solid footing for this creative journey. Yet, it doesn’t end there; structured methodologies like speedy sketching and the brainstorming exercise known as “crazy 8's” are employed to churn out many innovative ideas.
And assessment is the indispensable partner in this cycle. It fits in like this:
On this side of the diagram, designers must wear the hats of objectivity, open-mindedness to critique, adaptability, flexibility, and readiness to tweak ideas according to their real-world effectiveness. Here, the creative notions are subjected to rigorous scrutiny, keeping only what serves the users’ needs and the clients’ objectives. The genius of this process lies in its iterative nature, a rhythmic dance between creation and evaluation, resulting in ever-evolving refinement and ultimately delivering sought-after results. Beyond design, this methodology proves versatile and universal, fostering cross-disciplinary learning and drawing from a rich tapestry of diverse perspectives in our collective pursuit of excellence.
Now is a good time to talk about Steven Pressfield and the idea of shipping.
I was first introduced to the paramount concept of “shipping” through Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” Instead of falling into the endless loop of ceaseless refinement and pursuing unattainable perfection, shipping champions completing a project and setting it free. In Pressfield’s astute observations, many creatives are ensnared in the snares of perfectionism, dedicating extensive time to their craft without ever reaching the finish line or sharing their work with the world.
Pressfield masterfully articulates that “shipping” is indispensable because it serves as a conduit for embarking on new projects and embracing fresh ideas. It enables individuals to glean invaluable insights from their triumphs and tribulations, fostering personal growth and continuous improvement. By embracing iteration and shipping, an individual can continue refining and perfecting their work over time rather than getting bogged down in pursuing unattainable perfection.
Essentially, the philosophy of “shipping” steers individuals towards a path characterized by progression and development rather than the relentless pursuit of flawlessness. It empowers them to generate greater work, derive profound wisdom from their experiences, and ultimately reach their aspirations. Notably, this synergy of “shipping” and iteration underscores the symbiotic relationship that fuels creative progress. And shipping can only exist with regular iteration or practice.
As an experiment, a few months ago, I decided to test this out and asked a question on LinkedIn and Facebook in the form of a fill-in-the-blank statement:
Practice makes _________________.
To this prompt, I received a variety of responses:
- Practice makes habits
- Practice makes mildly ingrained neural pathways with repetitive action will lead to grooves and patterns you fall into a little bit more easily
- Practice makes you more confident in what I’m practicing
- Practice makes you develop other positive habits besides the skill you are specifically practicing
- Practice makes the most of things possible
- Practice makes burnout
- Practice makes you better at what it is you’re practicing
- Practice makes improvement
- Practice makes better
- Practice makes progress
- Practice makes a practitioner
- Practice makes you show up
- Practice makes the patience needed to get to the answer that will do the most good
- Practice makes perfection
- Practice makes permanence
- Practice makes you not bad at that thing (which is good unless it’s bad), then better (unless it’s worse), then possibly better (unless…)
- Practice makes you tired 😉
- Practice makes you burnout
- Practice makes sense
- Practice makes _________________
- Practice makes permanent
- Practice makes the patience needed to get to the answer that will do the most good
- Practice makes preparedness
- Practice makes multiplied by knowledge may yield wisdom
- Practice makes shit done faster 😀
- Practice makes the master or expert
- Practice makes… we talkin’ ’bout practice! Not a game? Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talkin’ ’bout practice, man!? — Allen Iverson
So, let’s cluster these answers into broad categories or themes.
There’s no definitive right or wrong answer to this, but I was testing the proverb “Practice makes perfect.” I was curious whether individuals would immediately recall this concise, alliterative phrase when browsing their LinkedIn or Facebook feeds or if they’d have a different interpretation. Surprisingly, only one person out of the 27 responses, constituting just 3.7% of the sample, selected the response aligned with the traditional saying. If we consider “practice makes the master or expert,” this percentage only increases to 7.4%.
This suggests that people, or at least this specific group, hold diverse perspectives and interpretations of this widely known adage. The fact that only one response corresponds directly to the prompt implies that most responses delve into alternative viewpoints or offer phrase variations. This underscores the diverse beliefs and attitudes people have about the concept of perfection and the role of practice in achieving it. It truly highlights the rich tapestry of perspectives within our language and culture. So, even though most of us are familiar with the phrase “practice makes perfect,” it seems that deep down, we recognize that it’s not entirely accurate.
To iterate appropriately, I believe one must carefully consider combining creation and assessment to craft the next thing, the improved-upon design. This process follows the notion of iteration, which share the same fundamental principles. By trying different things, we can better understand our creative goals and the constraints we are working within, leading to more innovative solutions.
For many years, I’ve emphasized that designers aren’t magicians with supernatural powers, conjuring up work shrouded in mystique, illuminated by screens, and accompanied by the clatter of mechanical keyboards. They aren’t casting spells like Harry Potter or creating magic like Led Zeppelin. It’s a process characterized by iteration and testing — rinse and repeat. Yet my friend, Jake Kahana, has a captivating metaphor. He likens designers to magical artists, not in the sense of supernatural abilities but in how their practiced skills can seem like magic to an audience.
Not magic but practice, practice, practice.
In this light, those who emphasize iteration as a method to excel in their work have distinct advantages over those striving for perfection. Firstly, perfection is often an unattainable ideal, and pursuing it can result in frustration, burnout, and stagnation. Conversely, iteration encourages making gradual improvements and adjustments over time, leading to substantial progress and success in the long run.
Secondly, iteration facilitates the reception of feedback and the subsequent incorporation of that feedback. By releasing work early and frequently, one can gather input from users, stakeholders, and team members to make informed decisions and enhance their product or process.
Lastly, iteration supports ongoing learning and growth. Continuous practice and refinement of skills lead to expertise, increased efficiency, and enhanced effectiveness in achieving goals. This approach encourages the adoption of a growth mindset, where mistakes and failures are viewed as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than mere obstacles or setbacks.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think, I’m always open to hearing others’ points-of-view — if it’s the same as mine or it’s different. Also, thank you to Thejus Chakravarthy for his help reframing and re-structuring this article.