““Ultimately the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”” – Elie Wiesel

Here’s a great way to become perfect at just about anything: When you practice, don’t ever do it wrong. If you practice perfectly, you will become perfect.

I want to propose this to you as an ETR Big Secret.

Here’s the background of the Jazz Master’s Secret: I was talking to TH, a colleague who plays a very good blues guitar. He told me that about 20 years ago he attended a small seminar given by legendary jazz guitarist Howard Roberts. Roberts told TH the secret of his virtuosity: “Never practice a mistake.”

According to Roberts, most musicians, in their eagerness to play complex pieces, move too fast. What he had always done – and the secret to his success – was to practice only what he could do perfectly.

His theory was that any learning – and guitar learning in particular – is the biological process of creating neural networks in the brain. Every perfect repetition beats a good path – one that you can travel on later. Every incorrect repetition beats a parallel but incorrect path – one that you can easily slide onto if you aren’t careful.

The more you practice the right moves, the deeper the memory path. The trick is to make the correct paths as deep as possible and the incorrect paths shallow or nonexistent.

The faster you eventually perform a task, the more likely it is that you will make a mistake, unless, that is, you have cut only one path for it – a perfect one. Likewise, when you are performing a task under stress or in association with other tasks, it is easy to bungle it unless you have no neurological way to screw it up.

The trouble with most guitar students, Roberts said, is that they rush themselves. They are fixated on completing a movement rather than on performing it well. They figure the sooner they can simulate the completed movement, the better they are doing. But the truth is quite different.

I make the same mistake with Jiu Jitsu. When I learn a new move, I want to master it quickly. Instead of taking each part slowly and surely, I rush myself. The result? I learn an imperfect movement.

BW, a great Jiu Jitsu player, has been telling me to slow down for as long as he has known me. Now I understand why.

How To Practice Everything Perfectly

Most things worth learning are complex. That’s why we learn them in pieces. Whether it’s guitar playing, dancing, or public speaking, the ultimate performance is a complex combination of many simpler tasks.

Thus, to make the performance perfect you need to perfect each of the simpler tasks. Most learning systems are based on this understanding.

To do a task perfectly – even a simple task – usually means slowing down. You should slow down as much as you need to in order to make the movement perfect.

Don’t worry about your progress. Doing a repetition at half speed does not make the learning process twice as long. It makes it faster, because you are creating just one neural pathway – and none to cause you to deviate from your course.

The fundamental rule is this: Do it right every time you try and you will learn faster and perform better. It may be possible that the secret to virtuosity itself is not some mysterious preexisting natural capacity for a particular skill, buta natural inclination to practice it correctly.

Isn’t that what imaging is all about? Isn’t imaging just a visual way to improve the quality of the repetition?

ETR readers know the secret of accomplishing any goal: 1000 hours to achieve competence and 5000 hours to achieve mastery. I’ve talked about how you can shorten that time by being coached well. Now I see that being coached well means having someone who can show you the “perfect” way. By learning perfect form and practicing it perfectly, the time it will take you to master a task –any task – should be considerably shorter.

I’m convinced. From now on I’m going to slow down and get it right. When I put aside, say, fifteen minutes to practice something, I’m not going to try to do as many repetitions as possible in sixty minutes, but to do as many perfect repetitions as I possibly can.

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