What if practice doesn’t make perfect?

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

You know the saying: practice makes perfect. But how much practice? If you believe the ‘10,000-hour rule’, you can become an expert at most things with 10,000 hours of practice. What’s the catch?

On the way to being a Grand Master? Image credit Michal Jarmoluk via Pixabay

Grand Masters

Think about a skill you’d love to master: maybe chess, soccer, cello or speaking Spanish. What would it take for you to be truly exceptional at your chosen activity?

Is raw talent essential? Perhaps early nurturing of natural talent makes all the difference (think Tiger Woods). Or maybe anyone willing to put in years of hard work can overcome not being born gifted.

Twenty-six years ago, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson and his colleagues investigated the practice habits of violin players undertaking training at the elite West Berlin Music Academy. They wanted to understand what made a brilliant violinist as opposed to a ‘very good’ one. Their conclusion: you don’t get to be a virtuoso with less than ten years of practice under your belt. And the more you practice, the better you are likely to be.

The magic number

So where did 10,000 hours come from? In Ericsson’s study, by age 20, the best violinists had spent on average 10,000 hours studying violin. In contrast, the very good violinists had averaged only 7,800 hours of practice.

Fast forward to 2008 and Malcolm Gladwell published his book Outliers. Gladwell wanted to know why stand-outs like Bill Gates and The Beatles were so successful.

The key? According to Gladwell, 10,000 hours of practice. For example, The Beatles played thousands of live shows in Hamburg between 1960 and 1964, resulting in more than 10,000 hours of performance by the time they returned to England.

With that, the ‘10,000-hour rule’ took on a life of its own. Soon, 10,000 hours of practice became a rule-of-thumb; a magical threshold.

How hard is it to cross the threshold? Four hours of practice on five days of the week across ten years will get you to the magic number.

Be deliberate about it

But research has slammed the 10,000-hour rule – unsurprisingly, the path to mastery is not quite so simple.

For a start, the simple rule ignores that there are many forms of practice. Simply doing something over and over again for 10,000 hours doesn’t guarantee you anything – except perhaps boredom.

What’s needed is not just accumulated hours, but committing to what’s called ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice involves getting expert advice: having someone who can give you feedback and correct your mistakes.

And there’s no evidence for a one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Back to the original study of violinists: 10,000 hours was not an exact number of hours reached, but rather an average of the time these top violin students spent practising. It turns out some had practised for far less than 10,000 hours. Others had accumulated more than 25,000 hours of practice.

If not practice, then what?

Researchers have now pooled together the results of many studies in order to understand what role practice plays in success.

For example, a review of 88 studies found that on average, deliberate practice accounted for 12% of the variance in performance across a range of activities. Broken down, the researchers calculated that practice explained about a quarter of the difference in ability in games like chess, about a fifth of the difference in music and even less for sports. When it came to jobs like computer programming or piloting planes, practice barely made any difference to performance – only one per cent.

Research published in 2016 explored the link between deliberate practice and performance across many different sports and found training accounted for only 18% of the variance in performance. And when the researchers looked only at elite sportspeople, practice could only explain one per cent of the differences in success.

Another study found practice could explain about one-third of the differences in success among musicians and chess players.

Practice, although important, is obviously nowhere near the whole story. Things like genes, personality, access to expert advice as well as how good someone is at taking on feedback must all be hugely influential too. The 10,000-hour rule has been debunked.

But it seems to me there are many other reasons to play games, sport and musical instruments. I definitely won’t be giving up all the things I’m mediocre at anytime soon.

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  1. Hi Jen. So great to have you back – I’ve missed my morning train ride email shot of science. Personally, I’m really pleased to have that 10,000 hrs debunked, it always left me with a sense of a mountain way too high to climb. It also doesn’t acknowledge success and value along the journey – like the first time you put on your hiking boots to take that first step, the triumph of erecting a tent in under 5 minutes, when it used to take over 20, or reaching base camp…I could go on, but I won’t. So good to have you back – made my day

    • Thanks so much for your lovely message Marti – it made my day to receive your comment. Here’s to both of us managing to get back to regular posting! And I totally agree about the 10,000 hours. I already figured that if that’s what it took to be an expert I’d happily stay a definite amateur. There are too many different fun things to do and try!

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