Practice is key to learning and an essential aspect of mastery, but how  effectively we practice will make a huge difference in how much we get out of it.

Conscious Practice vs Mindless Repetition

One thing I discovered when I began to learn Japanese is that I never really learned how to study effectively.  I would mindlessly repeat vocabulary words hoping it would eventuality stick, but Japanese is so alien to English on so many levels  that it took a long time for repetition to work.  With mindless repetition, there was much less value for the time I was putting in.  It works, but not very efficiently.

So to with time.  Studying or practicing for hours will bear some fruit, but quality will win over quantity in effectiveness.  Deliberate, conscious practice is the key.  This involves slow, conscious repetition and clear goals of what you want to accomplish. The more you can break a skill down into well defined elements and work on each element in turn, the more you will be able to consciously hone in on weak/difficult areas.  This not only builds patience and consistency in your practice, but make the most of the time spent.

Try to remember that practice is not about perfection, but perfecting.

Practice vs Play

Play and Practice are very different in nature, but both play an important part in learning.

As outlined above, practice is a very deliberate and focused process involving the repetition of very specific material.  It is not particularly fun (tho sometimes practice can certainly be enjoyable) but is done the the intention of developing that skill.

Play on the other hand is the unstructured application of what you have learned.  It is when you experiment and explore the application of those skills free form.  Most importantly, it is done for the sake of enjoyment and probably why you chose to learn that skill in the first place.

You  may find that one may shift naturally into the other.  For example, while playing piano for fun I may find an area that needs work and shift into deliberate practice for a few minutes to smooth that out. Or as I find myself needing a break from the intensity of practice I may shift into some free-form play.

The Value of Play

  • Keeps one on the long term path of mastery.  Practice can be frustrating or boring, which is not the best for motivation. Play on the other hand can be great motivation.
  • Engages you in your Work, which is conducive to flow.  It helps to enforce what you have been practicing.
  • Encourages active curiosity.  In play, one is less worried about doing it “right,” allowing us to ask “what if…?” or explore creative adaptations or applications.
  • Difficulties become fun challenges vs sources of frustration.
  • Play helps to pinpointing areas that need more practice or new areas to add to one’s practice, honing one’s focus.

It’s important to sometimes just let loose and have fun. Explore the skill and experiment. Play is how to make the skill your own and break out of the structure of focused practice.

Community and Practice

Throughout this website we emphasize that community is a valuable asset in our personal development. While the application of community can vary, when it comes to the art of practice, there are several ways in which getting assistance from others can be an effective aid in one’s endeavors.

Teachers and Mentors

Teachers and mentors come in many forms, not all of which are formal arrangements.  For example, we all know people who are sources of inspiration and who would make a good role model.  Observing how they work and deal with various roadblocks and setbacks in their own practice and incorporating them into your own work can be extremely educational, especially if you are able to open a dialogue with them. Sometimes we are unable to see alternative solutions from our current perspective. Such opportunities can present themselves even by seeking out blogs/vlogs of others documenting their own efforts in that area of study, or online communities of fellow enthusiasts of that subject.

Practice Partners

While developing the discipline of self-study is essential on any path of mastery, there are some times when practicing with others will offer opportunities simply not possible alone and is particularly essential for developing the ability to apply the skill being learned.

For example, when learning a language, reading and writing can easily be self-learned with help only from books and online resources, but to be able to speak competently one must practice with a language partner to develop speaking and reading competency.   Likewise, in martial arts, one can drill moves and techniques, but the only way to learn to apply them in real-word situations is by sparring with partners.

Essentially, working with others allows one to develop practical skills in the application of what you are learning.


Our perception of our performance does not always match reality. For example when learning to play a musical instrument, you will naturally slow down on hard parts and speed up on easy parts or the parts which excite you, and not realize the variations in that timing.  Recording one’s practice for later review, or in some forms of practice, the use of mirrors will allow you to experience your performance from the perspective of an outside observer.  Timing, posture, smooth movements… these are just some of the components of your performance which are difficult to correct without an outside perspective.

External Feedback

Sometimes we can be over or under critical of our performance, be it based on our mood or ignorance of proper technique. Having an external reference can help offer honest feedback to allow us to adapt our practice to best hone our skills.  Feedback from someone familiar with the subject matter would probably provide more specific suggestions and corrections, but there are times when the feedback from someone unfamiliar with the subject would make sense. For example if I am practicing a presentation and want to ensure I am able to present the topic in a way that those unfamiliar with it can still follow along.

One area to use caution on however, is the use of friends.  Some friends may not want to offend or discourage you and so offer positive feedback regardless of your performance.  It is essential to communicate your need for valid feedback and avoid those who are reluctant to be honest about poor performance.

Also keep in mind that when getting feedback from people unfamiliar with the subject matter they may be easily impressed. I can ramble off random poorly pronounced Japanese words and impress anyone who does not understand the language while making a native Japanese speaker scratch their head in confusion.  Picking the proper resources for feedback is crucial.


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