Practice Makes Perfect: Improving Your Skills

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” While many dismiss this idea as well-worn and antiquated, the concept of meaningful practice has been embraced by neuroscientists and life coaches alike in recent years. Author Daniel Coyle champions practice as the means to achieving excellent in his book The Talent Code. The idea is that if we spend enough hours doing something, we will forge new neural pathways that are the key to progress.

But do we really practice? A lot of us leave practice on the table as something reserved for athletes (soccer practice), musicians (practicing the piano), and students studying for exams (those practice problems are in the textbook for a reason). When was the last time you did something just for practice?

Contrast this mentality with the fact that we all have areas in which we’d like to perform better. Think of three things in which you’d like to be better. Were they personal? Work-related? I would argue that it makes no difference. We can improve our workplace skills through practice just as we can our personal skills.

Here are some workplace skills at which I’d like to be better: networking, troubleshooting my own IT problems, and data analysis. Let’s take my first pick: networking. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, my networking skills could use a little practice. Why would I practice, you ask, when every social situation is different? The answer is that part of the reason I’m not a networking guru is that I’m not entirely comfortable in reaching out to people I don’t know.

But what if I practiced? What if I made a point of contacting someone on the edge of my social network every week, or even better, every day? I have a theory that I might become more comfortable having fringe-y conversations with people, and as a result, I might be more likely to do it in the future. Furthermore, I might stumble upon some good conversation starters for people in my line or work, or I might discover that some topics get my contacts talking more than other topics. In any case, it’s quite possible- okay, probable- that I would become comfortable enough networking with people on the edge of my comfort zone that I might engage in that behavior more often.

You might be thinking, “Hold your horses. Not everything lends itself to practice that way.” That’s true. Take the second item on my wish list: troubleshooting my own IT problems. Every computer issue I come up against will (hopefully) be different, and it wouldn’t make sense to practice solving the same IT issue over and over again anyway, since that wouldn’t leave me very well prepared to deal with my own IT issues as a whole. But I would still argue that practice could apply here as well. Each time I troubleshoot an issue on my own, I will likely learn a little bit more about how my software works, or my agency’s IT policies, or perhaps something else interesting. In time, the aggregation of this knowledge will make it more likely that I can handle new problems that come up in the future, even if I haven’t encountered them before.

So what could you practice to improve your skills?

Erica Bakota is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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