Sunday, April 27, 2014

Persistence and Practice: the Keys to Success

I'm going to admit that I'm a bit annoyed when people find out I'm a polyglot and sometimes say, "You must have a gift for languages!" 

It annoys me because I know that every language I speak (except my native English) came from thousands of hours writing out and studying vocabulary cards, memorizing dialogues, and practicing with natives every chance I got. 

If I had a "gift" for languages, I wouldn't have needed to study a card twenty times before I finally could use that word in a conversation effectively!

But I eventually learned those words because I put in those long hours of study.

What I have a "gift" for is persistence and patience in practicing those things I want to master.

The ancients knew what we even today express through the saying "Practice Makes Perfect."

But while it is true that "Practice Makes Perfect," the key to success is making sure that the practice we do is regular and persistent.

One of the clearest ancient statements of this concept comes
from Cicero (Pro Balbo 45):

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit.
Constant practice given to one matter often conquers both genius and art.

In other words, there probably are people with an "ingenium" for languages. I wish I were one of them! But the person who studies hard and long to learn a language could easily surpass such a talent, if that talented person does nothing with it.

Ovid expresses the same concept when he writes (Pontica 4.10.5)

Gutta cavat lapidem.
The drop (of water) excavates the stone.

One drop of water seems to do nothing when it falls on a rock. But we've all seen holes in stone carved out by drops in the million. Again, I can't personally learn a word the first time I see or hear it. And that's why I keep seeing and hearing it until I finally know it well.

As a Latin proverb also points out:

Mater studiorum repetitio est.
Repetition is the mother of learning.

And it has been my experience that effective repetition doesn't have to mean necessarily studying or practicing a skill for dozens of hours in a row. Regular practice for even a short period of time can be more helpful than sporadic attention for lengthy periods of time. 

This fact is well described by the Greek painter Apeles (quoted by Pliny, Natural History 35.36):

Nulla dies sine linea.
No day without a line.

He's saying that, as an artist, even drawing one line on a picture each day is better than nothing, and crucial to long-term growth in whatever skill or talent you wish to achieve.

There are some nice modern statements of this ancient wisdom regarding regular practice and persistence. Note, for instance, a quote attributed to Bruce Lee:

"I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once. I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times."

Another painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wrote (Discourses, ii):

If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency.

Similarly, the French scientist Georges Louis Buffon:

Le génie n’est autre chose qu’une grand aptitude à la patience.
Genius is nothing else than a great aptitude for patience.

So whatever we want, be it a new talent or to speak a new language, persistent practice promises us success. 

Be patient, be persistent. Practice, practice, practice...  Make it so.

Good luck, and God bless...

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