Master Your Fucking Craft: The Mistake of Practice

Brian Buirge

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Practice does not make perfect. It’s not going to make you better. It won’t help you master whatever that thing is you really like doing. I’m fucking sorry, it simply doesn’t and it won’t. Whoever told you any of that was either lying, or—at best, misinformed. In reality, practice can even make you worse.

I meet, talk with, and teach a lot of eager people who are hungry to get better and just can’t figure out why their growth is stagnant. The problem they all have in common is they’re just practicing—and they’re doing it all wrong. The practice of mistakes is a mistake of practice.

Most people really like to engage themselves in two types of practice, both of which can feel really great, and unfortunately neither of them will ever help to make them better.

The first mistake of practice is, people focus on the things they already know how to do. It seems simple enough, but really— if all you’re doing is repeating the things you can already do well, you will never grow.

Let me give you an example in the design classroom. I bear witness to this kind of scenario all the time: I’ll have a student who struggles through a project making mistake after mistake and ultimately, finally, the student manages some kind of a breakthrough. Perhaps they found a really great color palette, or maybe they discovered a beautiful combination of typefaces. Whatever moment they discovered, inevitably they will attempt to use the exact discovery again in their very next project. Early on some students attempt to pass this off as their “style.” I call this “lazy.” They’ve also completely missed the point. The lesson wasn’t the end result of “look, these two typefaces work really well together!” The lesson was, “look at what the serendipity of the process brought you.”

The other serious mistake people make in their practice is mindless practice. I see and hear about this more in the professional realm (though it certainly plagues students just the same). Practicing professionals get into the grove of working a typical 9–5 job and they start running on autopilot. This can be particularly bad because the repetition of day-in and day-out work can really solidify bad habits. The more ingrained these habits get, the harder they are to break later on. Years go by and before they know it, their work begins to look dated, and they become disconnected with current technology and professional practices. They engage in a practice of self-obsolescence.

So if practice isn’t the way to mastery, what is? Deliberate practice is the path to mastery.

Deliberate, mindful practice is quite different. It entails considerable, precise, and constant efforts to do something you can’t do well—or for that matter, can’t even do at all. It's not easy, and quite frankly a lot of times it’s very uncomfortable because there’s ALWAYS a sustained period of mistakes, failures, false starts, and fucking up that occurs.

Your ego frequently gets in the way of this kind of intentional practice. Our ego doesn’t like the rawness of the unknown. Often we get into our own heads about our perceived inadequacies and to pacify this feeling we run home to what we know we can already do well. True progress; however, lies on the other side of this feeling.

It is only though deliberate practice at what you can’t do, that you will turn into the expert you desire to become.

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
—Aristotle