Posted by on August 18, 2016

by Lynn Robert Carter, Ph.D.

Knowing and doing are two very different things. Many of the things children and young adults are taught in school typically employ knowing activities, such as preparing for spelling bees, memorizing multiplication tables, and learning the parts of speech. It is easy to recognize these kinds of things, as they are typically assessed by means of multiple choice and true/false tests. While it is true that the things most people are paid to do require considerable knowledge, it is really the quality of the performance and the quality of the work products that matter.

I found the following story[1] to be compelling:

A pottery teacher splits her class into two halves.

To the first half she said, “You will spend the semester studying pottery, planning, designing, and creating your perfect pot.  At the end of the semester, there will be a competition to see whose pot is the best”.

To the other half she said, “You will spend your semester making lots of pots.  Your grade will be based on the number of completed pots you finish.  At the end of the semester, you’ll also have the opportunity to enter your best pot into a competition.”

The first half of the class threw themselves into their research, planning, and design.  Then they set about creating their one, perfect pot for the competition.

The second half of the class immediately grabbed fistfuls of clay and started churning out pots.  They made big ones, small ones, simple ones, and intricate ones.  Their muscles ached for weeks as they gained the strength needed to throw so many pots.

At the end of class, both halves were invited to enter their most perfect pot into the competition.  Once the votes were counted, all of the best pots came from the students that were tasked with quantity.  The practice they gained made them significantly better potters than the planners on a quest for a single, perfect pot.

So what’s moral of the story?  The best way to learn something is to do it, a lot.  Like every day.  But practicing something repeatedly is a start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Of course there is no denying that practice and repetition is important to acquiring a skill.  But simple practice isn’t enough, it must be deliberate practice.

It’s this concept of “deliberate practice” that resonates with me. I remember taking piano lessons while I was in the 3rd and 4th grades. I hated the lessons. It wasn’t the practice I hated as much as the constant corrections to standards and rules I could not understand and the terror of public recitals in which my piano teacher insisted I participate. I loved to play the piano for my entertainment, not for the entertainment of others. Luckily, my self-directed playing was good enough that it seems I was not actually torturing those around me[2]. So, how was it that I was able to develop the required basic skills without the benefit of constant corrections by my piano teacher?

My dad had a lovely exposed-tube amplifier and an extensive collection of records that he loved to play. Living with these wonderful examples of “good”, my own ears became sensitive enough for me to tell the difference between acceptable and not. From that, my hours of practice at the piano’s keyboard did result in improvement, even if it was not as rapid as I’m now sure it would have been had I stayed with my piano teacher.

When one wants to really know something, the body and the subconscious, as well as the conscious mind, need to learn it. Touch typing and the use of a clutch when driving a car with a manual transmission are obvious simple examples. What seemed so hard to do right as a just-starting beginner, became smooth and flawless after adequate and continued practice.

When tasked with becoming a professional, the same principles apply. At first, producing high quality work products is time consuming and fraught with failures and miscommunication embarrassments. As the number of failures and embarrassments decline, many start to believe that they have finally “gotten things under control”. Sadly, this is an illusion. Considerably more practice is needed, because the rest of the body learns much more slowly than the conscious mind.

This truth comes out for most all of us in particularly awkward and distressing ways, typical under times of stress. After a debacle and serious reflection, it becomes clear what should have been done and why, but that is not what happened. What many struggle to understand is why they acted like a beginner and behaved in total inappropriate ways even after previously demonstrating appropriate actions and behaviors.

When we are under serious stress, much of our conscious brain becomes consumed with fight or flight response thoughts, whether we realize it or not, and we react using our subconscious and body knowledge and skills. What we don’t do is research, read, discuss with peers, experiment, design, plan, implement, review, refine, pilot test, reflect, hone and polish, and then finally act, the way we were taught in school. (Besides, how many of us actually wrote the papers the way they told us?) This is the single largest problem educators and those charged with developing human resources in firms, have to face. The learners pass the tests and know a great deal. They know the theories; they know the concepts; they may even know how to integrate the parts into a whole. They just aren’t able to actually do anything of value.

While a few programs have capstone courses that showcase end-to-end capabilities, almost none of the graduates have ever used professional processes, methods, or tools, or have practiced being part of a high-performance team enough times to train the subconscious and the rest of the body. It is only by means of continuous deliberate practice, reflection, and even more deliberate practice that we can be assured that our under-stress behaviors will align with our knowledge and our firmly-held beliefs.

If you want to accelerate these improvements and raise them to the next level, find and employ a great coach and deliberately practice doing the work exactly as you will be called upon to do it on the job.


Sculpture and painting by Gary Beals (  Photo by Lynn Robert Carter

[1] (Downloaded and edited 2016-08-10)

[2] Or they elected to suffer in silence. As I write that and reflecting on my relationship with my sister, I now doubt that was the case.

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