It’s often said that practice makes perfect, but I couldn’t disagree more.  Practicing a musical instrument using the wrong finger positions won’t make you perfect – it’ll just make you exceptionally good at doing the wrong thing.  Similarly, practicing kickboxing skills using the wrong form won’t make you a great fighter.  If anything, you’ll be lucky to walk away from the gym uninjured…

So instead, I think a better saying would be, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  If we truly want to get better at something, we need to optimize the way we practice things – basically, we need to be great at getting better.  Here’s what I mean:

Play to your strengths

When it comes to becoming great, you’ve got to play to your strengths.  Certainly, there are times and places for both career specialists and generalists.  But if you want to be exceptional in your personal or professional lives, you can’t afford to divide your energies improving a wide variety of skills over a single, well-targeted set.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to be great at everything (unless you happen to crack the code of immortality).  We all face limited time and energy, which leaves us with the choice of specializing in a few of our best abilities or gaining a broad base in a wider variety of skills.  As a result, if you want to be truly effective, it’s far better to spend your self-improvement resources on improving the 20% of tasks that lead to 80% of your results.

If you don’t yet know which of your skills or abilities represent your 20%, don’t worry.  Think back on the job reviews you’ve had or the projects you’ve done that have gone well.  What skills have you received the most complements on?  What things do you like doing most?  With a little reflection and self-analysis, you should be able to come up with at least a few ideas of the strengths you can improve upon using the following process.

Break skills down to their component elements

From your list of possible strengths, focus on a single ability at a time.  Just like you shouldn’t try to overhaul your diet and exercise plan at the same time, dividing your energy over multiple goals only slows your ability to make meaningful progress on the skills you care about most.

Then, take your chosen skill and break it down into the smallest component elements you can think of.  To see what I mean, let’s take a look at an example…

Suppose you’ve decided that, in order to advance your career in the way you envision, you need to further enhance your public speaking skills.  You’re already a confident speaker, but in order to secure top conference spots or motivational speaking gigs, you need to make the leap from good to great.

In order to improve your public speaking skills, you break the entire process down to the following elements:

  • Your posture on stage
  • Your hand gestures
  • Your movement across the stage
  • Your facial expressions
  • Your mastery of your subject matter
  • Your vocal inflections
  • Your volume projection
  • Your clothing
  • Your level of eye contact
  • Your pacing

Really, the smaller you can break your desired skill down, the better.  It’s always easier to make major improvements to small habits or behaviors than it is to tackle larger goals all at once, so put some serious thought into how you’ll parse out your overarching changes.

Practice to the point of mindlessness

Now that you know the specific elements you need to improve in order to become great at your chosen skill, practice correct behaviors until they’re ingrained in your subconscious.

As an example, take the “hand gestures” item from the list above.  What you want to have happen is for your ideal hand gestures to become permanently burned into your mind so that they can be carried out automatically when you’re actually giving a speech.  To practice this behavior, you could recite your speech several times a day in your mirror, paying close attention to your hand placement.  Once you’ve identified a combination of hand gestures that works for you, repeat your specific variations until you can do them habitually without any conscious effort.

Whatever your specific target habits are, it’s possible to achieve this thoughtless mastery with consistent practice.  As mentioned earlier, though, don’t practice your habits just to practice.  Make your practice sessions as effective as possible by honing in on the specific habits you’ll work on and ensuring that you’re practicing them perfectly every time.

Work towards specific objectives

If the thought of practicing your chosen behaviors over and over sounds too boring to be productive, think about tying your efforts to a specific objective.  But don’t just set an end goal – visualize what it will mean to you to become great in your chosen skill.

Following with our public speaking example, the obvious result of improving your skills in this area is better paying, higher profile speaking engagements.  That’s great; but think about what this really means for your life…

Better paying jobs puts more money in your bank account, which could lead to nicer vacations, bills being paid off or even that fancy sports car you’ve always dreamed of.  At the same time, earning higher profile gigs could give you the industry recognition needed to work with top tier clients – increasing your income even further.  Really envision these end results and benefits in order to maintain the motivation needed to push forward with your self-improvement efforts.

Seek constructive feedback

Finally, keep in mind that nobody becomes great in a bubble.  Without feedback from others, it’s impossible to be objective in your evaluation of your own skills and behaviors.  While you can get better by working on your own, you certainly can’t become great.

To get the maximum benefit from other peoples’ opinions of your work, seek their honest feedback and seek it often.  For example, think about how you’d feel if you decided on a set of hand gestures to complement your speeches without realizing that a chosen motion looks forced and artificial.  Without a heads up from a trusted mentor, practicing this behavior until the gesture becomes ingrained in your memory will make it much harder to eliminate later on.

It’s also important to seek out feedback from people you trust.  In my businesses, I have several mentors that I rely on to provide me with honest advice that’s delivered in a constructive way.  Getting feedback from critics or from people who aren’t qualified to provide you with advice on your chosen skill isn’t as helpful, as you’ll wind up either on the defensive or incorporating feedback into your behaviors that ultimately sabotages your success.

Unfortunately, none of the steps in this process are easy.  Being thoughtful about the skills you choose to improve and the way you go about changing your behaviors is incredibly challenging, but the reality is that if it were easy, we’d all be great.  Instead, the struggle that we must go through in order to become great is what makes our top skills and experiences so valuable to our lives.

So don’t let the process of becoming great intimidate you.  Remember that everybody has to start somewhere, and that by taking the time to invest in taking your skills and abilities from good to great, you’ll position yourself well to experience an unprecedented level of success in your life.


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