It doesn’t matter if you’re fine-tuning your presentation skills or your martial arts techniques: this is how to perfect your performance.
If you like bromides about persistency, or if you savor the common-sense logic known as the 10,000-hour rule, you’ll love this quote from Bruce Lee: “I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks. I fear the man who practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
In other words, focused repetition and practice are crucial to the art of kicking ass–in case you didn’t know.
It doesn’t matter if you’re honing your presentation skills or your networking savvy or your ability to throw an accurate forward pass against a two-deep zone while rolling to your right. Practice makes perfect. So said every gym coach in the history of gym class.
And yet, time and again, business leaders savor reminders of this lesson about lessons.
Practice beats passivity.
Investor and author James Altucher’s recent post on Quartz, which leveraged Lee’s legacy, is one recent example. Altucher makes the case that he helped his 13-year-old daughter learn to serve in tennis not by babying her, or by gradualism or book study, but by throwing her right into the figurative fire:
Mollie was having trouble using her backhand to return a serve. So I bought 200 tennis balls and had her stand on the left side of the court. I served 200 times to the left side of the left box. Over and over. We didn’t rally. As soon as she hit back I served the next ball. Maybe a little harder or with more spin. She returned maybe 5% of them and started crying. “I’m horrible!” she said. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “Your brain is what learned today but your body learns when you sleep.”
Sure enough, Molly became better at returning serves. On a future occasion, she returned about 60 percent of Altucher’s serves and “was smiling the whole time.” What’s more, Altucher himself says that he learned how to serve better during the process.
Nothing surprising there. They certainly weren’t going to get worse. Which is Altucher’s point: Practice beats passivity.
But you already knew that. The question is, Why do different versions of this obvious reminder–whether it’s the “Bruce Lee technique” or the 10,000-hour rule–always seem to strike a chord with business leaders?
One reason, which Altucher hints at, is that sensitivities in today’s culture can prevent teachers from deploying the tough-love techniques of yesteryear–the ones that hurt feelings today but create better employees (or tennis players) tomorrow. Chances are, you’ve had that teacher or coach or mentor or family member in your life–the one who is hardest on you, but the one you learn the most from.
A culture of learning.
Here’s the thing: A workplace culture that truly prioritizes learning will find ways to integrate the Bruce Lee technique into how it does business. For example, as CEO of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, Scott O’Neil has established a culture in which focused repetition, practice, and harshly honest feedback are the norm and an expectation.
At the annual Go Forward offsite, jointly held by the Devils and 76ers, there are five employee presentations. Each one is prepared by a team of two employees: one from the 76ers and one from the Devils. About two months before the offsite–early April–the employees huddle with O’Neil about their presentation topic. They’ll write an outline and submit it to O’Neil. The outline must mention what they’re trying to accomplish, what exercise they’ll conduct with the group as part of the presentation, and what the takeaways are supposed to be.
After O’Neil OKs the outline, the duos prepare, practice, and present to him. And he delivers harsh criticism. He’ll say things like, “You’re opening is awful.” Employees who dislike such between-the-eyes feedback don’t work for the Devils or 76ers. From O’Neil’s perspective as CEO, the rehearsals help him train his leaders and managers to improve their presentation skills. In the process, he learns how they respond and react to criticism and deadlines.
In other words–in Altucher’s words–these employees learn through aggressive practice, rather than passivity. And it works.
Conrad Cooper, a Los Angeles-based swimming instructor known as “the swim whisperer” for his skill in persuading scared children to jump in the water, is also an advocate of aggressive practice techniques. “If you think this is someplace you can come and do monkey-walking by the side of the pool and sing songs, you’re in the wrong class,” Cooper said in a recent NPR story. The story notes that “helicopter parents are politely instructed to find a landing place in one of the comfy chairs that ring the large saltwater pool–and stay there.”
It’s not surprising you can find the Bruce Lee technique at work in cultures related to sports or sports training. Athletes of all levels grasp what non-athletes sometimes forget: That to master a skill, it’s better to practice it 10,000 times–or for 10,000 hours.
But you already knew that. The overall lesson here, then, is also a simple one, once uttered by Samuel Johnson, the immortal English author, critic, and lexicographer: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed,” he said. His words apply both to the power of practice itself, and to the habit of remembering why practice is important.