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Practice makes perfect…

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Practice makes perfect… or does it?

One of the funny things about having studied languages is idioms. I’ll never forget the French lesson at university where I learned the phrase ‘ce n’est pas mes oignons’ (meaning ‘it’s none of my business’). Try explaining the phrase ‘it’s not my beeswax’ to a French person.

In short, things we take for granted in one language simply don’t translate well to another*.

There’s a whole passage in Steinbeck’s East of Eden about a group of elders who study Hebrew just to understand the meaning of the word Timshel. I won’t spoil it here – but do read the book if you haven’t. The understanding of that word in its native language is the whole point of the book. The meaning of just one word can change everything.

And sometimes, we take things at face value in our own mother tongue. Like those elders, I have been wrestling with a word recently: practice. Well, I’ve also been wrestling with the word ‘practise’ and the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’.

It started when I was doing some research for an upcoming TBD report into world-class organisations and what differentiates them from the rest of the field. And the words practise and practice came up. Musing on what makes an organisation truly great, I was transported back 25 years or so to when I studied French, and remembered that ‘practice makes perfect’ does not directly translate into French.

In French, they have ‘l’usage rend maître’ and also  force de pratique, on y arrive’.

Let’s take those in turn. The first roughly translates as ‘Usage (practice) makes you a master (maitre).’ Or maybe ‘Mastery comes through practice’.

The second means ‘by practising, we get there’ or maybe ‘through practice, we arrive’.

The problem with the English version of the phrase is that it contains an embedded, unattainable idea of perfection – a state of having arrived and finished the job.

Neither French phrase does this, as they shift the emphasis back onto the daily/continual practice. In the first sense, it’s the daily practice that makes you a master, in the second form, it is only through practice that we get there. Stop practising, and you’re no longer a master and/or you’re no longer ‘there’.

In many faiths, our life’s work is to practise a religion or a belief. To be on a journey. This would resonate with Muslims (among others), as their view is that perfection is only attainable by Allah. Hence the built-in imperfections in the Taj Mahal.

What on earth does this mean for people who work in professional services?

For lawyers, accountants, architects, planners and other people in our sector, the words practice and practise are so commonplace that we may have lost sight of them a little. We work in a practice. We practise our profession. But, maybe subconsciously but certainly often, professionals substitute the word ‘do’ or ‘advise’ for practise.

At first, it may appear to be a be a subtle difference, but as it was for Steinbeck’s characters, so it is for us: a lot turns on the meaning of one phrase. To advise is to come from a different place, to already ‘know’ all the answers. To ‘practise’ is to continually seek to perfect.

Some lawyers (I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a few of them previously and now as clients) *practise* law. Likewise the planners and recruiters I work with currently. It’s easy to spot them as they tend to be people who listen and actively seek to enlarge their knowledge on an ongoing basis. They are open to new ideas and technologies.

But so what, right? Who cares if some professionals do this and others don’t? Well, here’s another observation: the ones who practise law tend to charge more by the hour and have fewer of their bills challenged. Fewer clients doubt their value.

Left, right and centre, we are being asked how lawyers and other professionals will survive in a post AI world. Or at least, what their role will be. Having thought about it for the past few months, I have a sense that part of the answer is in the word ‘practise’.


*And yet, some really do. In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace’s Fox Force Five joke goes:

“Three tomatoes are walking down the street- a papa tomato, a momma tomato, and a little baby tomato. Baby tomato starts lagging behind. poppa tomato gets angry, goes over to the baby tomato, and smooshes him… and says, catch up!”

And in French (please forgive my terribly memory and language skills) it goes something like this:

“Trois citrons marchent sur la route. Papa citron, maman citron et bébé citron. Bébé citron est en train de tomber derriere ses parents et son père se fâche et le écrase et crie “citron pressé”

Which doesn’t feature tomatoes, or ketchup, but the joke works brilliantly.

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