When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

When I was growing up and learning new things, I was always told “practice makes perfect.” As I struggled with everything from tying my shoes to working on my jump shot, one thing was clear: practice helped immensely.

In sports, this made sense. If I practiced a free throw long enough, chances are I would figure out what it would take to make that free throw consistently. Part of that is muscle memory: training your body to make the same motion every time you took a shot. Another part of that was mental preparedness: being ready to take the shot in any circumstance.

In academics, it made sense too. In English, we read to see proper language use demonstrated, and then we practiced writing about what we read. In math, you’d see a quadratic equation presented to you in several different contexts to help you figure out how to properly use it.

Yet in real life, practice doesn’t always make perfect. It can certainly help, though.

Familiar situations

The whole idea behind practice makes perfect is that when you find yourself in a similar situation (let’s say shooting a free throw or tying a shoe), you’ll be able to do it well.

Well, that’s great if you’re given the same situation, but what happens if you get an entirely different situation?

In business school, we were taught about how to deal with employees who are having issues at work. Basically, you observe, discover, problem solve, resolve, and follow up. And if you do that time after time, you get pretty good at it. Someone says Johnny is having issues at work, you observe him, talk to him about the issue, try to figure out a solution, and follow up at a later date.

Over and over again, this works.

But what if you got a call saying Johnny’s wife is in the hospital in serious condition? Does that practice help you? And it’s a phone call you’ll hopefully only get a couple times in your life, so how would you even begin to practice that?

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Practice can help

While practice may not be able to help you completely, you can probably use the information you have used to make decision in the past. Using the free throw example, if someone moved you out a few feet from the standard foul line, you may not be able to make it as well as before but you’d be closer than if you hadn’t practiced at all.

Similarly, there are skills you get from dealing with employees that would help you out in the above example as well. While it doesn’t fall under the business school way of dealing with employee issues, you learn other skills through this practice, too. So would I rather have an experienced employee relations specialist make that call, or would I rather send in an engineer who doesn’t advise employees at all?

So, certainly practice can help and even if it doesn’t lead to perfect results, it can lead to better results.

Dealing with ambiguity

In reality, practice doesn’t make perfect in most work or life situations. Problems are complicated and deep. They are filled with history and context that create complications. People don’t react the same way twice. So if you’re in a human-facing role (like most of us in HR), you’re not tying a shoelace here.

You’re going to have to deal with some ambiguity. And like author Jason Seiden has said, you might have to get comfortable with the idea that dealing with ambiguity is going to have a major impact on your success. And you might have to get comfortable with the idea of ambiguity itself.

Practice is good but it will only take you to a certain level. There are some things you simply can’t practice for, but you’ll still be expected to complete the task anyway.

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2 Comments on “When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

  1. The other time practice doesn’t make perfect? when you lack the right model. Your English class example is perfect. In business, too often people “practice” the behaviors they witness their bosses engaging in… which often aren’t any better.

  2. The other time practice doesn’t make perfect? when you lack the right model. Your English class example is perfect. In business, too often people “practice” the behaviors they witness their bosses engaging in… which often aren’t any better.

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