I just finished reading Guitar Zero, the story of a cognitive psychologist who tries to learn guitar at 40. After reading the book I scoured the web for reviews of the book and interviews with Gary Marcus. I found that people were really curious whether an adult could learn a musical instrument, and furthermore whether he had proved the old saying “practice makes perfect.”
This surprised me since I never thought that the saying made a whole lot of sense. In my opinion it is an over simplification of the complex process of learning.
First off, it can’t just be any type of practice. It needs to be deliberate practice. Gary Marcus defines deliberate practice as “a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths.”
Secondly, how much practice are we talking here? Is this the 10,000 hours referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers? Surely one can’t just practice every once in awhile and expect to achieve perfection.
Finally, how do we define perfect? Even if we change perfect to master it still raises major questions. Practice can’t be the only limitation keeping each one of us from being a master. Certainly innate talent and genes play a role in determining how far one can progress with any skill.
So maybe a more accurate phrase would be:
Deliberate practice repeated consistently over a long period of time makes a person reach their full potential.
Then again, when I am practicing guitar I have experienced moments of “flow.” When the rest of the world disappears, time slows, my senses heighten and I am fully engaged in the present.
These moments are fleeting but amazing. Almost perfect.
Maybe practice does make perfect.