When Out-of-Practice Makes Perfect

posted in: Commentary | 0

One of the keys to achieving fitness results relatively quickly is the valuable rest day. Daily training for weeks on end works for some people, but even that lifestyle can be helped by even a single day off. (Not that I’m a personal trainer or fitness guru, but it happens to be true.) No matter what regimen you follow, almost all of them emphasize the importance of resting your wearied muscles so that they can heal and grow new muscle tissue to help you perform even better than before. In some ways, the mind is very similar, especially when learning new skills.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.—Bruce Lee

About the only solid truth of learning any skill is that the more time you spend practicing, the quicker you will learn that skill and (generally) the better you will be at performing it. Of course there are many other factors involved but let’s just roll with that advice: daily practice, even minutes a day, adds up to big change more quickly. So yes, practicing the scales on the piano will make you better at it. It’s better to draw every day if you want to improve quickly. It’s better to practice that single punch 10,000 times, to paraphrase Bruce Lee. It’s infintely useful, yet, in my opinion, has a potentially devastating effect.

Practicing with an overly conscious “beginner’s mind” can leave you convinced that, even with hundreds of hours of training, you still need to practice in the same way every day. Some people swear by this method; I personally can’t recommend it anymore. Sometimes, after enough practice, what I really need is some time off. Not a few hours; sometimes I need a couple of weeks.

It seems that this break, which to some is unusually long, allows me to literally forget about the tedium of drawing a certain way. When I draw purposefully, I usually create a stick figure and then flesh it out until the piece is complete. Drawing this way sometimes uses too much brain power:

“Oh, are the proportions right?”
“Is the ribcage drawn in the right place?”
“That nose is a little too generic.”

So let’s say that I take a break from drawing for a few days. I’ll come back to a blank sheet, and stop myself from starting with a stick figure. I’ll remind myself that after having the visual arts play such a big role in my life for the past 20 years, there are some things I just don’t need to practice. Just draw a face, I’ll tell myself, you know well enough where things go at this point. Then, I’ll do it…


… and far more often than not I’ll knock out something fairly accurate with just a few lines. It almost feels like I don’t need to practice ever again. (That idea is also not recommended!) But where does that power come from?

Perhaps the mind is more like a muscle after all; allowing it to rest lets it make new connections within itself. Studies suggest that expecting too much of yourself can lead to catastrophic performance failure, otherwise known as choking. I get this whenever I attempt to draw on smooth ink paper rather than the rougher stuff I use for sketching. It’s a careful balancing act between thinking too hard and trusting your ability, and while daily practice helps you find that balance more quickly, I think it’s worth taking a few days off to de-stress and re-center myself.

Leave a Reply