A reporter once asked boxing legend Muhammad Ali how many sit-ups he did each day. I’m sure the reporter wasn’t expecting Ali’s answer. Ali replied with:
I don’t know. I don’t start counting them until it hurts. Those are the only ones that count. That’s what makes you a champion.”
Ali knew that counting things is just a numbers game. Five hundred poor sit-ups don’t count as much a fifty done the right way. With any practice that you do the only things that count are the things that teach your something or that push you to be better.
Don’t Practice Until It’s Right
People used to ask me how long I would spend at night studying for the CCIE lab. I told them I usually spent between five and seven hours depending on what I was studying. Sometimes those people would say things like “I’m not talking about setup time. I’m talking about actual lab work.” I always countered by making them explain why the setup isn’t part of the “real” work. That’s usually when they went quiet.
It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of overlooking things that you think are unimportant. A task you’ve done a hundred times is no big deal until you do it wrong the next time. Like Ali above, the things you do that require no effort don’t count. If you’re practicing a skill for a certification or a lab you need to put the same effort into it every time to ensure you’re doing it correctly. Lack of attention means you are doing it without gaining something from it.
I spend a lot of my time teaching things to people all over the place. I teach IT and networking skills to professionals. I teach outdoor skills to scouts of all ages. I teach merit badges and other things to a variety of youth. And I teach my kids life skills they will need. Every one of these lessons comes with instruction in the little details that matter. Every lesson also includes guidance that it needs to be practiced properly until it’s right. And then some.
Until You Can’t Get It Wrong
I tell my students and kids all the time, “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” The level of involvement that it takes to get past the part where something finally works up to the level where it works every time is as wide as the gap at the lower end of the spectrum.
Too often people are content to work on something until they get it once. Whether it’s tying a knot or programming a router interface or even cooking a grilled cheese sandwich. Once you’ve done it right once you’re done with learning, right? Most of you are already shaking your head because you know that’s not right.
Once you get it right the first time you’ve already made a list of all the wrong ways to do something and you avoid them in the future. However, that list doesn’t include the entirety of all the wrong ways to do a thing. Amateurs make somewhat predictable mistakes because they’re working from the same basic knowledge. It’s when someone says they know what they’re doing that the real crazy stuff starts coming out of the woodwork.
Once you’ve practiced a skill you need to keep going. You need to work a variety of different angles to make sure you’ve covered all the ways you could get it wrong. If you’re tying a knot you need to practice with different kinds of ropes or in different positions. If there are two ways to tie something, practice them both. You don’t want to be an expert at a clove hitch over the end of a pole only to find out you have to tie it around the middle with no way to use the loop method you have memorized.
In IT, we lab things up to make sure we understand them. For these labs, try out the things in wrong ways. Click buttons before you’re supposed to. Put the wrong numbers in the field. See how the system will try to correct your errors. Maybe it doesn’t even bother? It’s easy to figure out you typed something in wrong when you hear a bell and see a message. It’s harder to troubleshoot when you don’t see anything right away and it all falls over later.
The extra practice above and beyond the first success is just like Muhammad Ali’s sit-ups. The hard ones count. The tasks that stretch your mind are the ones that build your skillset. You can’t give up when the answer isn’t right at your fingertips. Going that extra mile is the key to making yourself a better professional in whatever you do.
As we wind down 2020 we’re all looking to be better at things. Hobbies, skills, or professional talents are all calling to us to work on in whatever down time we have available to us. Make that practice count. Work hard to get it right every time. If you want to learn to make hollandaise sauce or write a novel or do a forward flip you have to keep practicing even after your success. Get to the point where you have no other choice but to get it right every single time. That’s the perfect amount of practice you need. Anything less counts as much as Muhammad Ali’s sit-ups before they start hurting.