Finish the Drill

Practice, not perfection, leads to success.

Posted Jul 24, 2020

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
White golf ball on the green.
Source: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Practice makes perfect. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. It takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything.

We’ve all heard variations on the theme above. And we know once we reach a certain point of maturity that the advice is completely wrong. The 10,000 Hour Rule has been effectively disproven. I can tell you right now that I can practice singing or any instrument you put in front of me for the rest of my life, and no one is ever letting me on the stage at Carnegie Hall (just ask my poor piano teacher from elementary and middle school). And honestly, what is “perfect”? At best, it’s a dangerous and unattainable goal, leading to a toxic mix of self-defeating language and even clinical issues.

So why, then, do we repeat these mantras? Because there is something to the practice. None of us arrived on this earth as experts. Even those we might hold up as masters of their craft—think Einstein, Simone Biles, Colson Whitehead, Yo-Yo Ma—didn’t start there. They studied, they tried and failed, they spent time in the gym, they sought advice and feedback from coaches and teachers. And, except for Einstein, I would be willing to bet that they still do. Because, in fact, practice does not make perfect. Practice identifies opportunities to grow and to learn and to stretch in new ways. Mistakes, after all, are key to learning and growth.

It's fascinating that so many of us are able to understand this concept when it comes to things like sports and art and language, but not for more academic or professional pursuits. We seem to make a distinction between the innate talent of the artist or the athlete and an ideal that we each can be or do whatever we want, if we just put our mind to it.

I am not the most gifted runner, but about twice a year I sign up for a half-marathon because I really enjoy the training process. For ten weeks I follow a strict plan of short, medium, and long runs, track my pace and my time, and make intentional diet choices because I know that the key to success on race day is both mental and physical. Your body needs to learn how to put mileage under your legs. And your brain needs to learn how it feels to run for an extended period of time. That’s it. It’s not hard, and anyone can do it. And yet, I know I’m never going to win a race. I'm just not that talented. But twice a year I definitely finish one, and feel the satisfaction of having trained for a goal and accomplished it. The work isn’t in the race itself. It’s in the preparation.

Any sports coach will tell you that their job takes place in the practices. When you get to a game, it’s too late. By then their players should know the plays, they should be conditioned, they should understand their role and how to execute it.

I spent a number of years at the University of Georgia when Mark Richt was the head football coach. His teams were known for the saying, “finish the drill.” What did this mean? It meant you don’t quit when things get tough. But it also meant that the work comes in the practice. If you consistently show up and finish the drill in practice, then when it comes to game day, it’s just muscle memory. The players knew to “finish the drill” because that’s what they did, day in and day out, in practice.

A week ago I was reminded of this saying by one of our student-athletes at Wake Forest who won the North & South Amateur in a playoff with a 4.5-foot putt. After, she said, “the only thing that was running through my head was, ‘this is the drill. This is the putt. This is what it’s been for.’” For months she had been practicing that exact putt, over and over again. Practice, in golf or anything else, doesn’t make perfect. It makes you prepared.

This is all about mindset. It's an active choice to adopt a growth mindset, as Carol Dweck has taught us, to stay in a mode of learning and growing. Because whether you’re learning a sport or developing an artistic talent or building your career, there will always be something you can do better. There is no such thing as perfect, in sports, in life, or at work.

So how do you “finish the drill” at work? Think about the following:

  • Be an intentional learner. A growth mindset is the belief that you can develop your abilities through hard work, learning, and mentoring. And it starts with you. Write down 2-3 learning goals you have for the next 3-6 months. Be as objective as you possibly can. Where are the places you need to stretch? What are your gaps in terms of knowledge or skills? What strategies will help you to grow and to learn in the right ways so that you develop that muscle memory?
  • Seek out feedback. We all have blind spots when it comes to our work. We all would rather hear that we’re perfect than that we have work to do. But nobody’s perfect. And the growth comes from the work. Find people you trust to give you the feedback you need to hear, so that you continue to grow and get better. Ask for guidance and make sure that you’re open to listen and to learn. Spend time in deep reflection and acknowledge your mistakes. These are your growth opportunities.
  • Find a coach. Chances are, whatever it is that you want or need to work on, there is someone in your universe who already does it better. Seek people out who can give you advice on how to achieve those goals you set. Pay attention to what other people do well, and the strategies they employ. Find someone who can show you the way, hold you accountable, and remind you of the process.
  • Cultivate your practice. Whether you’re training to run a race, preparing to lead an event or a project, or planning to speak to a room full of people, you finish the drill when you cultivate your practice, when you focus on preparation and developing your muscle memory. Sure, the 10,000 hours thing may be false, but Simone Biles didn’t just show up to the Olympics one day and decide to win a gold medal. She put years of work into the gym to get to that point. Game day is the gravy, the time to put all that you have learned into play. But the real work, the growth work, happens in the practice.