practice

Practice isn’t all you need to become successful. Photo: muscleprodigy.com

The old adage goes ‘practice makes perfect’, and while we all know there is truth in it, at some point practice ceases to become the driving factor towards excellence, at least if we’re to judge from the recent findings of a group of psychologists who  studied how people acquire skills and become experts at what they do.

There’s quite a lot of scientific literature that suggests practice is the leading factor in achievement. Possibly the most famous study in this respect was published in 1993 by K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist. After asking violin students to estimate their lifetime practice, he found those who logged at least 10,000 hours of practice outperformed and displayed more skill than their peers who reported less hours of practice. This number was subsequently made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book  Outlier: The Story of Success, where he writes what he learned after studying successful people and what makes them tick, often citing that 10,000 hours of practice will help you become an expert.

The team shifted through 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills and concentrated on 88 of these that collected and recorded data about practice times. Contrary to popular belief and what mainstream literature would have us believe, practice on average only explained 12 percent in mastering skills in various fields, from music, sports and games to education and professions. The contribution of practice to excellence varied from field to field as follows:  26 percent for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education and less than 1 percent for other professions.

Excellence depended even less on practice when the data used by researchers came from logged hours in a journal over time, instead of self-reporting practice habits from memory. So, what are the other factors that lead to excellence?  Confidence, positive or negative feedback, self-motivation and the ability to take risks, the researchers note. Each of these factors will be analyzed in depth by the researchers next to see what their contribution to excellent might be.

A personal note: some people might believe that practice is not so important, judging from the findings, and that if they think they’re not talented, they should not try to excel seeing how it’s useless anyway. False. The researchers themselves are careful to highlight that while the importance of practice may have been overestimated previously, it is still paramount to success.

The team was comprised of  Brooke N. Macnamara, a Case Western Reserve University assistant professor of psychology, David Z. Hambrick, from Michigan State University, and Frederick L. Oswald, from Rice University.

Their findings are in this month’s online issue of Psychological Science.

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