Practice, Perfection, and Holding out for More Marshmallows

The old adage “practice makes perfect” doesn’t seem to have much of a place in the 21st century. Our age of instant gratification, where you can google a question and get a near-instantaneous answer, has taught us to want everything instantaneously.

When we are sick, we look for an instant fix with medications. When we are learning something new, we look to online resources to lessen the learning curve. We have fallen out of practice in our abilities to practice, in favor of the easy way out.

But while our instantly-available resources can be exploited for a number of tasks, they’re not applicable to all things. To remain happy and healthy human beings, we need to be on continual watch for where instant resources—which short circuit persistence and practice—apply to our lives and where they hold us back.

And despite how easy it is to find quick answers, “practice makes perfect” is still the best way to learn something deeply and comprehensively.

The 3 Magic Words

There are three secrets to learning new things and building skills (with definitions from Google):

  • Be consistent – “unchanging in achievement or effect over a period of time
  • Be persistent – “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition”
  • Practice – “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use”

Notice the strong terms: continuing firmly, in spite of difficulty, unchanging in achievement. Keeping these three words in our mind through out the day will help us make the right decisions as we go about our day to day tasks.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel performed a series of studies on how children cope with delayed gratification. The experiment was simple: a child could eat 1 marshmallow now (sitting temptingly on a plate in front of them), or they could wait a few minutes and get 2 marshmallows.

Years later, when Mischel surveyed the children in the experiment, he made an interesting discovery:

To his surprise, the longer the five-year-olds had waited for their marshmallows, the higher they scored on standardised tests for college admissions a decade later. The patient children had a lower body-mass index when they grew up, greater psychological well-being, and were less likely to misuse drugs than those who had quickly gobbled up the treat.
Desire Delayed, The Economist, 10/11/2014

In other words, persistence over instant gratification brings success in practically every area of life.

How does this apply to learning new things? Instant gratification can often shortcut the practice and minimize your consistency and persistence. Would it be better to spend the time to figure things out on your own, or tap in to the limitless amount of instantaneous knowledge? Is it efficient problem solving or is it really a marshmallow in disguise?

The 3 Magic Words in Action

1. Learning a new framework or language.

When learning a new framework or language, I tend to be a hands on type of person. I can read about it for hours and hours, but those hours are not very valuable unless I put my hands to a keyboard and start practicing and solving real problems. The more I use the new framework, and the more difficult problems I solve, the more comfortable and knowledgable I become.

This consistency: every hour I practice with a new framework, I will learn something new and applicable to other problems. In the world of software, those newly learned skills are often commutative and will apply to other languages and frameworks. The best example of this is purely functional programming. If you haven’t yet invested into consistent practice in this area, you are missing out. It changed how I approach and think about solving problems, even though I don’t work in purely functional languages day to day.

2. Learning a physical activity.

Consistency, persistence, and practice apply even more elegantly to physical pursuits than those that are theoretical and thought driven. My choice of hobbies over the past year has taken a drastic turn with taking up an interest in olympic weight lifting.

Learning how to properly perform a clean and jerk is a lot different from learning how to properly structure a single page application. You can read about proper lift technique and watch hours of elite level athletes performing the lift in slow motion, but the only way to really learn is to actually put your hands on a barbell with consistent and persistent practice.

When approaching something new, look at it through the lens of our 3 magic words. Devote the time to be consistent and persistent in your practice.