All of us have heard the old joke about a lost out-of-towner approaching a
New York street sweeper. The out-of-towner asked "how do I get to
Carnegie Hall?" and the street sweeper replied, "Practice, practice,
practice!" Recently, I had a conversation which reminded me of a
time when I learned about the value of practice.
In my last year of law school, I had the opportunity to participate in
a corporate and securities law moot competition (a pretend appeal of a
fake case) in Toronto. Our team of four speakers and one researcher had
less than three months to prepare for the competition, which would involve
learning Ontario securities law, writing up the "appeal" materials,
and preparing for a 5 minute speech arguing each side. Another 10 minutes
for questions. Big deal, I thought. I figured that the tough part would
be learning the law and writing up some half-intelligent materials. I
didn't think too much about the two five-minute speeches. Our team leader
had a very different agenda in mind, however.
Barry Slutsky had already led the University of British Columbia team
to a landslide win two years in a row. Those were the only two years of
the competition, so he had quite a reputation to protect. Plus, he knew
that the folks at the University of Toronto were used to winning and were
getting their pencils sharpened for victory. As a result, his strategy
was for us to practice our speeches a total of thirteen times before the
competition. Each time, he would have us stand up in front of different
sets of lawyers, judges, and people from the securities industry. Each
time, they were to grill us and give us feedback.
I hated the idea. I have prided myself on being a creative person. Practicing
that much seemed to interfere with my idea of spontaneity. It seemed too
contrived to say the same thing over and over again, that many times.
Plus, I was still terrified of public speaking and the thought of being
subjected to that many instances of criticism seemed helpful but very
difficult. I argued with Barry about reducing the number of practice sessions.
He simply smiled and told me to show up for all practices. I ended up
being the one with egg on my face.
By the time we arrived in Toronto, we had heard every possible question
asked and we were prepared for any possible trick from the opposing side.
We were told to take out unnecessary words and we were told to rephrase.
Sometimes, the suggestions were contradictory. That forced us to grow
even further as we pondered which suggestions fit and which didn't. As
I watched my team mates present their five-minute bits and compared them
to the speeches from the other teams, it did become obvious that the thirteen
practice sessions were not overkill. They were a necessity for high quality.
Pareto's 80/20 rule says that 80% of the work can be done in 20% of the
time and that the remaining 20% of the work takes the remaining 80% of
the time. The other teams had done the first 80% of the work. Barry forced
us to rise above that level of quality and it showed. We did take the
first prize title, but the level of quality I had never experienced before
was the real prize. I used to think that I wasn't as smart as other kids.
Now I knew that the quality was largely the result of the number of practice
sessions, along with big and small adjustments based on outside feedback.
At that point, I realized that practice can make a mediocre person good
- and a good person great.
In the movie Shine, there is a scene in which a piano teacher talks to
his protégé about performing the extremely difficult Rachmaninoff
No. 3 Concerto. At one point, he states, "First, you have to memorize
the notes. Keep going through them over and over, until you have them
totally down. Then, when you perform, you need to be able to forget the
notes. You just play." Once a something is internalized completely,
we no longer need to stumble and keep the brain occupied by figuring out
what to do. Then we are simply left with experiencing and sharing the
beauty of the task - whether it is a speech, a musical performance, a
sales presentation, sports competition, or communicating through conflict.
Remember, practice can make mediocre good, and good into great. What
is your next level and in which area?
Happy practice, sunshine and smiles,
"All things are difficult
before they are easy."
striving to be the best is man's duty; it is its own reward.
Everything else is in God's hands."
"We work to become, not