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Practice Makes...Better (Or, How to Model Our Glorious Imperfections)

The other day, I overheard a parent say, "And practice makes...?"

"Perfect!" the child sang out, and they both smiled at what was clearly a shared memory.

While I loved seeing that moment of connection between the two, there was a part of me that was bothered. It niggled at me, like a loose tooth, and I kept coming back to it again and again. "Practice makes perfect." This is an adage most people in our culture have heard growing up, and it has stood the test of time. "Practice makes Perfect."

...What is "perfect?"

When I first laid my eyes upon my children's faces--scrunched up, wrinkled and wailing after the shock of birth--they were perfect. When I kissed them last night, I marveled at how they've grown and continue to grow, that I can see hints of the man and woman they will grow into. They are perfect. Years from now when my son's chin is dusted with a beard and my daughter's baby cheeks have matured into those of a young woman, they will be perfect.

I think of my daughter's artwork, of how she drew a picture of a rolly polly in a diaper when she was three, and how she brought home a skull she drew for Dia de Los Muertos. I think how each of them is perfect, and how much she has improved her skills over the last four years. How my son has gone from building with chunky blocks to Lego sets above his age, how every project has been perfect, and how much his spatial reasoning skills have improved.

Perfection seems to be a common theme around here. Especially here in Silicon Valley, where it often feels like everyone is smarter or richer or better-educated...just better, in general, than you. (And me!) They're perfect! And somehow that has come to mean that you (and I!) are flawed. Not worthy. Imperfect.

I am going out on a limb here to say that the flaw lies in a culture that touts, "Practice makes perfect." First of all, if we examine the definition of "perfect," clearly there is no such thing. Or else there is, but it is mutable, as Richard Bach stated so beautifully.

So if perfect isn't really a thing, then practice isn't going to get us there. What practice will get us, however, is...better. Practice will make us better at...whatever it is we practice. Piano. Math. Medicine. Baking. Mindfulness. You name it, I guarantee the more you practice it the better you will become.

Dr. Carol Dweck developed a concept called the Growth Mindset a few years ago, and it was startling in its recommendations. In short, praising children and focusing on attributes such as being "smart," or "good," backfires in the long run. But focusing on the work done has the long-lasting effect of realizing that we can all get better at something. So instead of saying, "Oh, you're so smart! You were able to do that puzzle!" parents and teachers are encouraged to say, "Oh, you worked so hard on that puzzle! Well done!" In other words, effort and practice are what research is showing we should praise.

And finally, the concept of modeling perfection to our children is...flawed. Because if our children only ever see us at our best, doing everything correctly each and every time, throwing flawless parties and cooking "perfect" will they ever learn how to, well, learn? How to make mistakes? How to fail?

What?!? Fail?!? I don't want my kid to learn how to fail!

Yes, you do.

Somehow failure has become a dirty word in our culture. Failing a test or a class makes us a pariah. And in our community the pressure to achieve perfection, to avoid failure at all costs, may even have played a part in some tragically fatal outcomes. Compare that to Thomas Edison, who, when asked how he felt about having 1,000 failures in creating the light bulb, allegedly responded, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. Creating the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." The Wright Brothers took years of trying (and failing) before finding their success. And we're all probably familiar with the stories of Einstein's failures in school. But instead of focusing on the process these amazing people went through we focus instead on the outcomes. We don't teach our children that failure is an essential part of success. We don't model it to them. We don't praise the effort--we simply tell them, repeatedly, "Practice makes perfect," as we console them.

No! No, I say! Let's break this horrible mindset of perfection as the goal, and failure as something to be avoided at all costs!

And here is how we do it: Parents, Mothers, Fathers, Grandmas, Grandpas, Aunties, Uncles, and all other grown-ups out there, let's start modeling our glorious imperfections. Let's make a point to let our kids know when we burn the toast, when we forget to pay a bill on time, or when we say the wrong thing to a friend or colleague (or child). In short, teach our kids how to fail. How to acknowledge mistakes and errors. How to at least attempt to fix things, and most importantly tell them what we've learned from those mistakes...and how to move on. There's another word that's important here folks.


We mess up. We fall down. We get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving. Over and over and over again.That is what we want our children to aim for, not some unattainable perfection that sets them (and us) up to feel inadequate time and time again. Rather we learn the process, how to to get back up. The strength to embrace our failures is what leads to success and happiness. Avoiding or preventing them has the opposite effect.

Piano. Math. Mindfulness. Medicine.


Practice makes...better.

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