Why Practice Might Not Make Perfect

Earlier this summer one of the more enduring management rules of thumb was debunked.  The notion in question was the one, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated and devoted practice to achieve excellence in anything.

The concept, aired by Gladwell in Blink, supports the notion that achieving anything of note will require a lot of hard work, and that with hard work, we can all achieve things of note.  The message is undoubtedly an empowering one, so it’s understandable that it gained traction.

A Princeton study suggests it might not hold a great deal of water however.  The research consisted of a meta-analysis of around 90 other studies, each of which explored the link between practice and performance.  This gaggle of studies delved into a gambit of areas, including sport, music and education.

What linked each of them together was the fact that each explored the link between deliberate practice and the acquisition of new skills and expertise.

Is practice a waste of time?

Well no, let’s not be hasty here.  The research didn’t suggest that practice was completely worthless, not at all.  Indeed, they showed that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve expertise in a field without working at it and practising hard.

That much doesn’t appear to be up for dispute.  This is where things diverge however.  Gladwell believed that practice on its own would be enough.  The Princeton study suggests that this is not the case, and we need more on our side to be able to reach true mastery of our domain.

Does practice make perfect at work?

When they compared the 90 or so studies, it emerged that deliberate practice would only account for around 12% of any difference between two individuals’ performances.  The scary thing is that this would plunge even further for domains linked to professional excellence.

So for example, in education type fields, deliberate practice would only account for 4% of the difference between two individuals.  4%! But it gets worse.  In professional performance, the difference was a paltry 1%.

Sporting salvation?

If you’re of a sporty disposition, the message is slightly more positive, as the impact of deliberate practice was found to be much higher in areas such as sports and gaming.  In a professional context however the results as something of a hammer blow.  After all, there’s a whole development industry out there saying we need to train and work hard to improve.

The study draws the depressing conclusion that for many of us, we could try as hard as want but we’ll never reach that mastery level.

"There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective.

It is just less important than has been argued.

For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”

So what is important?

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The researchers go on to suggest a number of things that contribute to our success that carry more weight than the hours we put in.  These include:

  • Our general personality type
  • How soon in life we start
  • How generally intelligent we are
  • Our working memory capacity

The defining message from the study is that judgement is key, for there are some areas that we will never master, and will thus waste those 10,000 hours of trying.  Much better to judge wisely which skills to chase and which to pass up.

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