I believe that the mark of a great quote is that it will be immediately relevant when you first hear of it as a kid (or in general when you have a shallow understanding of it) but gains increasing relevance as you grow wiser (and have a deeper appreciation for it).
Practice makes perfect is one such quote for me, and in this post I’ll share how I recently come to have a deeper understanding of it.
Practice makes perfect
I heard this a lot as a child starting school in China. Back then it was immediately relevant because the Chinese school system very much beat this concept into you (not literally, for the most part).
To learn Chinese, I would write the same characters over and over again, page upon pages. I remember competing with others to write as fast as possible. For math, we would repeat the addition or multiplication table over and over and I competed with others for who could answer an arithmetic question fastest. Yup, I was totally a keener back then – super competitive with top grades.
School in China in the early 90s was hard by any objective measure compared with western systems. I remember having class from 8AM to 4PM, I sometimes come to school earlier than required to run track with others and at the end of the day stay behind until I’m done homework (6-7PM). Even though it was hard, I think I mostly enjoyed it. Reflecting back on that time, I don’t think I’ve ever practiced anything so hard since.
What changed? I don’t want to dwell too much on this but it’s probably a mixture of 1) Going to school in Canada, where I learned it’s no longer cool to study hard and 2) the discovery of computers and video games.
The simpler life I had in China forced me to have focus. That focus happened to be school and it was encouraged and reinforced by everyone around me. As I grow up, more options opened up and I shifted from a mindset of practice makes perfect to one of minimum effective dosage in order to do all the things.
My obsession with goals (and achieving) them is not unique. There’s nothing terribly wrong with this, but I want to be mindful of the trade-offs and make the right personal adjustments. Once again, I really do think it’s all about finding the right balance, and it depends on what you are optimizing for.
Since my childhood in China, I’ve mostly optimized for achieving goals / desired outcome with the minimal amount of effort. After all, why would you rationally do anything else?
The answer to this question lies with the next quote…
Life is a journey, not a destination
I get this one directed at me when I complain about long travel times, or how long a hike is before I get to the top. I think this quote gets used and misused so much that the true meaning is not often realized..
So what is its true meaning? I won’t pretend to understand fully but I do think I recently gained a deeper understanding. It all starts with this question: Why is the journey is more important than the destination?
The answer I came up with has evolved over time, here they are in chronological order (from the time I first conceived of this):
- Death is the destination of all life, so it pretty much has to be about the journey
- In order to enjoy life, you must strive to enjoy all its moments
- Hardship is what makes life enjoyable, so long as you have a purpose
As a note – 90% of my life so far has been spent with #1 as the default full answer to this question but recently #2/#3 and related answers are being expanded upon in my mind and reinforced through books/podcasts I consumed:
- The Obstacle is the Way,
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Mastery by George Leonard
- Podcast: Tim Ferris interviewing Josh Waitzkin
The podcast with Josh Waitzkin (henceforth known as the JoshW podcast) is really the final nail in the coffin for me to level up my understanding and want to write about it here. Recency-bias notwithstanding, I think this might be my favorite Tim Ferris podcast to date.
The JoshW podcast goes over this concept and relates it to many more such as growth vs. fixed mindset, external vs. internal, proactive vs. reactive. They won’t mean much to you without context so please give that a listen if you care. Among the gems in there, one of my key takeaways was something to the effect of…
Focus on the process, not the outcome
In the context of practicing, this quote means that you should practice for the sake of practicing and trust that the process will make you better rather than being attached to the outcome of your practice.
Ironically, this seems to go in direct contrast with my rather goal oriented post years ago on measuring your goals. But on further analysis, I think the key is in not becoming attached with the outcome. I think you can and probably should measure it, just don’t be attached to the outcome either way. Being attached could lead to a number of bad things such as 1) giving up when you aren’t meeting goals 2) taking shortcuts that achieve goals in numbers but not actually make the overall system better 3) getting overconfident when you hit goals and stop practicing.
By not being attached to the outcome, it removes limitations you set for yourself and can allow you to push past plateaus.
The quote can be seen as just another variation of the journey not destination quote, but it’s an important variation because it is naturally more immediately applicable.
Applications to my life:
I’m too often in the get-it-done mode and sub-optimizing for learning new things and gaining mastery. So I should make conscious decisions to take things slower in order to learn something fully for certain cases. At the very least it could mean take the time to understand a solution I’m copy/pasting from stackoverflow.
In growing as a manager, I can take the growth mindset (also discussed in the JoshW podcast) and see conflicts between others as a learning opportunity for me to resolve them better. This is obviously a gross simplification, but you get the point.
I used to climb V6s at the bouldering gym and now I can barely do V3s after an extended break due to an ankle injury (oh and I have arthritis in some finger joints). I have doubts and questions such as:
- Will I ever get back to V6 level?
- Am I getting too old?
- Is the gym getting harder than before?
The answer to all of these questions is that it’s basically irrelevant. I don’t climb for a living so my livelihood is not at risk here. It’s a great exercise but it’s not like I can’t find others. If I climb it should be because I enjoy it!
Even before when I was doing the occasional V6, I was very very outcome oriented. I knew that my strengths in climbing were (literally) in my physical strengths. I was relatively good at doing shorter routes on steep inclines which required a higher strength-to-weight ratio, so I focused on doing those kind of climbs because I can complete routes of higher ratings that way. I knew I struggled with other types of routes but ignored that for the most part because it made me look worse (i.e. when I fail a V4 on a flat wall compared to a V6 on a steep wall).
So the main application to climbing is to deliberately practice things that are hard to me in climbing. Rating doesn’t matter, outcome doesn’t matter. I can gain mastery and enjoyment through the practice itself.
I stated a personal goal to write more about a month ago, and it’s been hard. I mean I have written to the blog at most once a week and even then I really had to force myself to just do it. What makes it hard is that I’m naturally attached to the outcome, even though in the post itself I tell myself to write more and worry less.
The largest barrier to writing for me is definitely the external factor. I worry too much about the reception to what I write that it makes me not want to write. And this is for a blog that has basically no readers except for close friends/family. I don’t really think currently that my ultimate goal in writing more is actually to become a famous blogger or writer so why do I even care? The goal from the onset was to just be more comfortable with writing and practice so I can write higher quality stuff at work with less effort.
What will be really cool to see with this blog is (hopefully) my writing improving over time. But hey, I’m getting outcome dependent again – gotta practice to not do that =)