Crappy practice is a waste of time
If you want to get good at something, you need to practice. If you're not trying to get better, and just want to enjoy doing whatever it is, there's no need to practice--do what you love and ignore anyone who wants you to do it better. But if you're going to practice, then practice. Don't do something else and call it practice. That's no good.
A while back I was talking to some friends about the idea (known for some time now, but recently popularized in the book Talent Is Overrated) that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to develop expertise at some skill. I had just written a post about the work by K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher whose work demonstrated that the number of hours semed to be the same over a wide range of activities from chess to tennis to playing the violin.
Ericsson defined a term "deliberate practice," by which he meant doing some piece of the task, monitoring the quality of the performance, evaluating success, figuring out how to do it better, and then repeating that process and trying to do it better. But when I tried to describe it, my friend interrupted me and said, "practice." I backed up and tried again, but once again, my friend insisted that what I was talking about was "practice"--not anything special or out of the ordinary. Just practice.
Ericsson justified creating a special term this way:
We call these practice activities deliberate practice and distinguish them from other activities, such as playful interaction, paid work, and observation of others, that individuals can pursue in the domain.
But my friend was right: It degrades the language to invent a new, special term to mean what "practice" already means. Better to keep "practice" to mean practice. If anything needs to be given a new term, it should be the non-practice activities that sometimes masquerade as practice.
When a musician gives a performance, he's trying to entertain the audience, not get better at playing his instrument. When a worker on assembly line builds a widget, he's trying to build a good widget, not get better at making widgets. When someone plays a video game, he's trying to have fun, not get better at playing video games. As long as these non-practice activities are not intended as practice, all is well.
(It's worth mentioning that any of these activities may, in fact, result in increased expertise--because some amount of monitoring quality, evaluating success, and figuring out how to do it better is going on. But that just means that these other things--performing, working, playing--include some aspects of practice. It's fine to acknowledge this, but don't imagine that these activities are thereby transformed into practice.)
Degrading the term "practice" has a real downside. If you let yourself call it practice, when what you're actually doing is just playing around, you're going to do more playing around and less practice--because playing around is easy and practice is hard. That's bad if you're trying to get better, because if what you're doing is not practice, you're not going to develop expertise.
Practice doesn't need a new name--it has long been understood. Neither do we need a new name for those other things you might be doing ("performing" or "working" or "teaching" or "playing" or "observing" or "reading" or "studying"). Perhaps, though, it's appropriate to come up with a new name for whatever it is that people do when they call it practice, but what they're really doing is just playing around. I've started to call that "crappy practice." And the important thing to remember is that crappy practice is no good way to get better at something.
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