What is Practice?

The old adage that “practice makes perfect” might be generally accepted, but I believe it is often misunderstood. Simple repetition solidifies habits, but doesn’t necessarily lead to progress. Just because something is “looking better” doesn’t mean progress is being made.

A pure technician might value solidifying a customary operation, but ambitious people want to dramatically improve their craft and their ability to yield real innovation.

To improve, we must make a conscious interruption of our normal habits. Refinement assumes that we have nearly arrived, but in fact, that could be really far away. The allure of refinement can distract us from the real goal: resolution.

Any artist (or product designer) who has experienced the thrill of discovery knows the value of taking risks. Forcing oneself to try new things — risking failure — is how we surprise ourselves. And if we fail, it builds character.

Taking real risks can be difficult because we don’t understand the degree to which we have been institutionalized. When we take risks, the goal is to force ourselves into a state of improvisation where unplanned things can happen. At the same time, we have to be conscious enough to stop when something great has happened.

Often we don’t have enough ingredients in our bowl of habits for any magic to happen, which is why we should be constantly learning and exposing ourselves to new things. I once had an art teacher tell me, “Expand in multiplicity and then come down in singularity.” Achieving that last part is always the real challenge.

This mentality was the primary lesson I learned while getting my MFA at the University of Washington a decade ago. This was reinforced later as a teacher when I found that students who made the most progress weren’t the most facile, but the most adventurous. Now that I am running a technology company, I find the same principles are relevant to personal growth and developing one’s ability to elegantly solve complex problems.