Practice May or May Not Make Perfect: Can We Really Do Whatever We Set Our Minds To?

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02 Apr 2019

I once read an article that cautioned against telling kids that “practice makes perfect.” Though the sentiment is old enough to be cliché, apparently there is some concern that it sets expectations too high and makes kids feel like failures if they practice yet don’t become perfect. After all, perfection is impossible, and the writer suggested a more accurate and effective form of encouragement: “Practice makes better.”

It’s funny how a line considered inspiring and encouraging by so many could be counterproductive for others.

Here’s another one that might need a reboot: You can do anything you set your mind to.

That sentiment is all over the place. It’s what we’re supposed to tell our kids, to inspire and encourage them to follow their dreams. It’s a sentiment many people loved when Lady Gaga expressed it, not long ago, at the Oscars:

If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion. And it’s not about how many times you get rejected … It’s about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going. 

Many people found these words inspiring. Don’t give up. Work hard. The implication being, of course, that if you don’t give up, if you work hard enough – you can do anything you set your mind to.

The problem is that this sentiment is false.

Or at least, only partly true.

Like practice, passion is important. Discipline is important. These ingredients might help a person succeed and even triumph… but they also might not. Sometimes we don’t achieve perfection or even get that much better. Sometimes we do achieve greatness, if not perfection – but in areas of achievement that require more than our own efforts, sometimes that’s not enough.

Sometimes, there are factors we simply cannot control.

So while many people shared Lady Gaga’s words as inspiration, others were frustrated by the speech, and the attention it got, because her sentiments ignored the realities they face.

For instance, I heard from one woman who felt the singer ignored the role of luck. This is someone who has produced great work in her profession but who hasn’t been able to connect with the right people, at the right time, to take her work where it needs to go. She has a dream, she has passion and discipline, she’s worked hard – but she’s not getting there. Maybe she still will, or maybe she won’t. And she was tremendously frustrated by the positive attention surrounding Lady Gaga’s speech.

What this woman calls “luck,” others might call G-d. G-d has plans, right? Sometimes they match ours, and sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, knowing it’s His plan may or may not make it any easier to deal with – another bit of well-intentioned perspective that some find inspiring and encouraging but that makes others want to tear their hair out.

Just like the line “practice makes perfect” can be discouraging to someone who practices but doesn’t achieve perfection, telling people they can achieve anything they set their minds to, that nothing stands in the way of one’s dreams but oneself, can be counterproductive for those who do face obstacles beyond their control.

To take a somewhat fanciful, but I think instructive, example: I might dream of flapping my arms and flying like a bird, but I don’t have that choice. (For the record, this is not a real dream of mine; the idea actually makes me a little queasy.) I might be able to build an airplane, and maybe it will fulfill my dreams of flying and maybe it won’t; or I might never succeed in building the plane and getting off the ground. I will definitely never be a bird. Would anyone tell me I can do it if I just set my mind to it?

We’re each born into a particular situation: we’re human, we live in a certain place, we have certain parents and influences and opportunities, etc. And we continue to find ourselves in various situations throughout our lives – sometimes by our own design, sometimes because one choice has ripple effects that rule out other choices we desperately long for, sometimes because of circumstances that are truly beyond our control. We can’t choose everything – which means we can’t achieve everything. Some accomplishments depend on more than practice, passion, or discipline.

So what do we do?

If I can offer my own suggestion, for those who (like me) will find it encouraging rather than discouraging:

We don’t limit ourselves.

We follow our dreams as far as possible, with passion and discipline and practice. But if we begin to realize a dream may be impossible, and that maybe the dream itself is causing us pain as we face setback after setback – then maybe we put it aside and look around our lives to find something else.

Maybe we will always long for the original dream. Maybe it is even still possible, but not yet – and in the meantime, we can achieve something besides waiting and wondering. Maybe we need a break from the pursuit; maybe putting it on hold will ultimately set us on a path towards achieving it. (Consider the case of Sarah Imeinu, who realized she wasn’t going to be Avraham’s partner in producing an heir and offered Hagar – still hoping on some level, “maybe I will be built from her” – and then found out she was the one after all.) Or maybe a dream really is impossible – but others are not. (Consider Moshe Rabbeinu, who had to accept that he wouldn’t lead his people into Eretz Yisrael, and content himself with everything he had accomplished for and with them.)

Mishlei 19:21 states, “There are many thoughts in a man’s heart, ___ the counsel of G-d – it will stand.”

Why did I leave a blank in that translation? The missing word is the Hebrew prefix “ו,” which shouldn’t present such a challenge to translate; any student of Hebrew language learns fairly early on that it means “and.”

Sometimes, though, “and” really means “but” – and sometimes, the meaning of a sentence hinges on which word we use to fill in that blank.

This pasuk is often quoted to explain the failure of evil plans, such as Haman’s attempt to hang Mordechai (see Midrash Mishlei 19:3): Humans have lots of plans, but don’t realize that Hashem’s plan will supersede theirs. We take the pasuk as an expression of the futility of human planning – of our hopes and dreams – in the face of G-d’s ultimate Plan.

But like Lady Gaga’s speech, that’s only a part of the picture.

How does the meaning change if we fill in the blank with “and?”

A person can have many thoughts – many hopes and dreams, maybe many plans to achieve them – and one of them, the one determined by Hashem, will succeed.

Suddenly, the pasuk can be read as not just an explanation of human failure, but of human success alongside failure. If a person can be open to multiple plans – then among them, G-d will help one along.

Sure, we want to tell our children – and ourselves – that we can achieve anything we set our minds to, be anything we want to be. We want to believe practice makes perfect; we want to believe discipline and passion will take us wherever we want to go, if only we are brave enough to keep going. And sometimes, that’s true.

But how long do we give it? How many times should we try for the same goal, in how many ways? At what point does the pain of continuing to hope for something that may be unachievable become too much?

Who will we be – how will we see ourselves – if our entire identity is tied up with one narrow vision that frustrates us again and again?

Sometimes, we might have to recognize that it’s useless to continue flapping our arms, because the continued attempt is only rooting us more firmly in place. Sometimes, we need to let go of one dream, so we can soar towards another.

The challenge, of course, is in figuring out where that point is.

It’s important to mention that this line of thought was partly inspired by Malbim’s comment on I Shmuel 1:8 – and that in that context, the person who suggests letting go of the dream is ignored and the one with the dream goes on to achieve it. Advice is sticky, and even for the relevant party, it can be incredibly difficult to know when to persevere and when the continued effort might be doing more harm than good.

That’s the brilliance of the “Serenity Prayer,” a cliché that perhaps offers a more well-rounded perspective: “G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” (Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892–1971.)

We can’t decide for anyone else which dreams to pursue, or how, or for how long or to what degree of exclusion of other goals. Those decisions are personal and require perseverance in their own right, along with tears, a great deal of wisdom, and עצת ה – the counsel of G-d. But we can, perhaps, acknowledge there might be things we can’t change, and that as painful as that is, it doesn’t mean there are no things we can change. We can broaden our messages from “you can do anything” to “there are many things you might do.”  And we can strive, through passion and discipline and practice, to soar wherever the wind, with Hashem’s help, guides us.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.