Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

I’d hear running coaches extolling the virtues of core strength, stretching, speed work, etc. I’d acknowledge the benefit of their experience, and then immediately ignore it. I went back to doing what I liked doing, which was running long and slow. I was running because I enjoyed it, and who takes up a hobby to do the bits in it they don’t like?

As time progressed, I was telling myself there must be more to this hobby, and I did want to run faster. I had a choice: either do more of it, or drop it for the next activity of interest. I chose to do more. Except I continued to even more of the bits I liked, until I got a knee injury. I went to a physical therapist called Molly. For the sake of this story, we’ll call her ‘Molly’, because that was her name. [Her name isn’t relevant to this story but I often come across books where names have been changed to protect identities, and since Molly was great, I’ll leave hers in place.] She had me lie on my side and raise my upper leg in the air. She then asked me to hold it there and resist, as she pushed down, with one finger. I had no response, and my leg collapsed back down to its partner. The coaches had been right about core strength. Who knew?

That first visit to Molly caused me to revisit my own know-it-all attitude to those running coaches. I decided to use my running time differently and redeployed some of it in strength training. I found myself running faster, despite reducing my weekly miles. I expanded the approach, and took some more time from my long runs to give to speed work. 90 minutes of long running might translate to 45 minutes of speed work; I was spending even less time running yet this too was helping me go faster. I used that ‘spare’ time in yoga, or sleep. It was great. There was also the added benefit of less time running meaning less chance of injury. That year, I achieved personal best times in marathon, half marathon and 5km.

I’ve always liked the musical rhythm in the saying, “If you keep doing what you did, then you keep getting what you got.” I was reminded of that saying (which I first heard from DiNozo, on N.C.I.S.) as I listened to a Freakonomics podcast on ‘being great at absolutely anything’. That podcast cites the source of the perfectly round 10,000 hours of practice required to become an ‘expert’. The figure of 10,000 was launched into the public consciousness by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, ‘Outliers’. I haven’t spent anything like 10,000 hours doing anything of note. I’m not absolutely great at anything, but the podcast was a useful reminder on the wise use of time when you want to improve. You need to do things that you’re less inclined to do. More importantly, you need to live, for much of the time in a place of discomfort.

We fall into comfort zones either because they are things we like doing, or because we have carved grooves for ourselves that might once have been uncomfortable, but have now become too familiar for us to leave. Growth comes when we push ourselves outside of these familiar furrows but doing so is draining, and not just physically. It takes mental and emotional energy to live in a state of discomfort. And it’s not enough to apply the correct effort; we need to apply the correct effort correctly, with ‘best form’. Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

My trajectory isn’t steep. I plateau a lot. I need to recharge those emotional and mental batteries so that I can take another run at improvement. It comes. I slip back. Sometimes improvement seems to come from nowhere. I like those unexpected leaps in capability where you suddenly just ‘get it’, and you’re not always sure why and when it came the way it did. Those leaps are a spur to further improvement. Those leaps never comes from a comfort zone.

I now know how to train, and the more time I spend in that zone of discomfort, the easier it becomes. In a way, that zone of discomfort becomes a sort of comfort zone in its own right. I’ve observed that I only needed to find this zone in one activity for me to be able to apply it to others, like practising a musical instrument, or learning a language. As my Tai Chi teacher used to say, “having it is less important than knowing how to get it back when it’s lost.” So much is possible if you can find comfort in the uncomfortable.