Practice makes (nearly) perfect

Many years ago when I was a young, budding writer (or so I thought), I received quite a blow to my tender ego from the esteemed scholar and critic E.D. Hirsch Jr.

I was at the University of Virginia and taking a course he taught on literary criticism. I remember getting a C- on my midterm essay and being irritated that there was no explanation as to why I received a less-than-stellar grade.

Remember those dreaded blue books?

When I asked if he could give me some feedback, he reviewed my work and wrote: “After rereading this, I’ve come to think that your thinking is (maybe) sounder than your writing—that you did not convey what you understood because your writing is unpracticed.”

Never mind that at the time I was the editorial page editor of The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s student newspaper, and had received A’s in other English classes.

But I took to heart what Hirsch said for two reasons: He had an incredible mind (later he wrote the best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know), and so I respected his opinion. More importantly, he was right—my writing was not as careful as it should have been. So I decided to make an effort to write with more clarity and exactness. I stripped my writing down to the most basic nouns and verbs, and practiced writing in a simpler, more lucid style.

That may sound a little silly, but I have often thought that we do not practice some of the most essential and important activities in our lives: writing, speaking, parenting, personal relationships and career choices, to name a few.

We understand the need to practice jump shots if we want to be a good basketball player or play scales if we want to be a good musician. But in other aspects of our lives, we simply say, “That’s just the way I am.”

I once tried to coach a CEO to speak better in public. He went through one training session I arranged and then declared, “No more.” He was done with me trying to change him and promptly went back to his old, peripatetic style of speaking.

If you are truly a “lifelong learner,” as many people claim to be, doesn’t that apply to all parts of your life?

And if the answer is “yes,” what about in business? In my career, I’ve worked for 10 CEOs and numerous chairmen and board members. I can probably count on one hand the ones who were extraordinary leaders. I would attribute their success, in large part, to years of practice and a good dose of humility.

I recognize that it is not easy to change old habits, run a business or lead and motivate people. But practice does make a difference. And when I say “practice,” I mean more than mere repetition. It’s the willingness to experiment and try new things to get to your goal, the wisdom to recognize when change is necessary and the humility to acknowledge that you are not as good as you think you are.

In the new year, I plan to practice listening, understanding and relating in my personal life, and assertiveness and follow-through in my professional life. That’s my New Year’s Resolution.

final exam

By the way, there was a happy ending to my semester with E.D. Hirsch. On my final exam, he wrote “this is a sound job” and gave me a B+. I’ve kept that, along with my “unpracticed” midterm, as a reminder that practice makes (nearly) perfect.

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2 Responses to Practice makes (nearly) perfect

  1. Michelle says:

    Jay, I love your articles. They provide a window into your fun, reflective, and authentic self.

    I like your points about changing old habits. As an executive coach, I often remind clients that our most powerful tool is simply noticing. As humans, we have the ability to notice our thoughts and ask, ‘How are my thoughts serving me?’ We can also notice the messages our bodies send us and glean valuable information from our tense shoulders, tight jaw, or the butterflies in our bellies?’ And we can notice our emotions (those on the surface and those below the surface) which provide important information and help us focus or pull us out of center. This ‘noticing’ is the first step to recognizing new desired behaviors. Practicing the new behaviors creates new muscle memory and ultimately creates new neuro pathways. Soon, the desired behaviors become the norm…and it all begins with simply noticing from that wonderful place of humility.

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