Practice Until You Can’t Get It Wrong


One of the things that I spend a lot of my time doing it teaching and training. Not the deeply technical stuff like any one of training programs out there or even the legion of folks that are doing entry-level education on sites like Youtube. Instead, I spend a lot of my time bringing new technologies to the fore and discussing how they impact everyone. I also spend a lot of time with youth and teaching them skills.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s important to not only learn something but to reinforce it as well. How much we practice is just as important as how we learn. We’re all a little guilty of doing things just enough to be proficient without truly mastering a skill.

Hours of Fun

You may have heard of the rule proposed by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. There’s been a lot of research debunking this “rule of thumb”. In fact it turns out that the way you practice and your predisposition to how you learn has a lot do to with the process as well.

When I’m teaching youth, I see them start a new skill and keep going until they get their first success. It could be tying a knot or setting up a tent or some other basic skill. Usually, with whatever it is, they get it right and then decide they are proficient in the skill. And that’s the end of it until they need to be tested on it or something forces them to use it later.

For me, the proficiency aspect of basic skills is maddening. We teach people to do things like tying knots or programming switch ports but we don’t encourage them to keep practicing. We accept that proficiency is enough. Worse yet, we hope that the way they will gain expertise is by repetition of the skill. We don’t set the expectation of continued practice.

That’s where the offhanded Gladwell comment above really comes from. The length of time may have been completely arbitrary but the reality is that you can’t really master something until you’ve done it enough that the skill becomes second nature. Imagine someone riding a bicycle for the first time. If they stopped when they were able to pedal the bike they’d never be able to ride it well enough to maneuver in traffic.

Likewise, we can’t rely on simple proficiency for other tasks either. If we just accept that an operations person just learns VLAN configuration once and then we hope they’ll know it well enough that they can do it again later we’re going to either be frustrated when they have to keep looking up the commands for the task or, worse yet, when they bring down the network because they didn’t remember that you needed to use the add keyword on a trunk port and they wipe out a chunk of the network core.

Right vs. Wrong

For all those reasons above I ask my students to take things a little further. Rather than just doing something until you have an initial success I ask them to practice until they have it ingrained into their motor pathways. Put more simply:

Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

The shift in thinking helps people understand the importance of repeated practice. Getting it right is one thing. Understanding all the possible ways something can be done or every conceivable situation is something entirely different. Sure, you can configure a VLAN. Can you do it on every switch? Do you know what order the commands need to be done in? What happens if you switch them? Do you know what happens when you enable two contradictory features?

Obviously there are things you’re not going to need to practice this much all the time. One of my favorites is the people in CCIE study groups that spend way more time working on things like BGP leak maps or the various ways that one could configure QOS on a frame relay circuit. Are these important things to know? Yes. Are they more important to know than basic layer 2/3 protocols or the interactions of OSPF and BGP when redistributing? No.


Tom’s Take

When I was younger, I watched the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. One of the episodes featured Winston asking Egon if he could read Summerian. His response? “In my sleep, underwater, and in the dark. Of course I can read Summerian.”

Practice the basics until you understand them. Don’t miss a beat and make sure you have what you need. But don’t stop there. Keep going until you can’t possibly forget how to do something. That’s how you know you’ve mastered it. In your sleep, underwater, and in dark. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

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