“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” It’s a lovely idea, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. As you might remember, Gladwell’s “magic number of greatness” was 10,000 hours of intense practice to become an elite performer. But as attractive as the 10,000-hour rule might be, it’s likely a myth.
According to a new study published in Psychological Science – a meta-analysis of 88 studies on “deliberate practice,” or structured activities intended to improve performance – practice isn’t nearly as important as researchers have argued in the past. On average, only 12 percent of differences in success can be attributed to practice, reports the Huffington Post. According to the researchers, “Deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variance in performance for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education and less than 1 percent for professions.” That’s a large spread across disciplines. So why might practice be more important for an aspiring chess player and less important for a future academic? As Brooke Macnamara, psychological scientist and researcher on the study explains, how predictable a task is makes a big difference. In chess, for instance, you can practice alone. “You can practice the same move or the same structure of moves,” Macnamara says. “You can study the same pieces of information. The board always starts out the same way.” In contrast, education is an ever-changing environment where students must constantly adapt to new information. “You can study quite a bit, but the semester essentially is going to keep moving forward,” she says.
If practice doesn’t make a difference, what does? Age, for starters. Individuals who pick up a violin or a swing a golf club at an early age may have a better chance of becoming a world-class violinist or pro golfer than those who try to learn later in life. According to the New York Times.
Experience, which is not strictly considered practice, is another factor. “Having pressure to perform in a chess competition or in a sport during a game – that is likely to be very helpful,” Macnamara says. “If someone has more experience in competitions, or just somehow does better with handling the pressure – they will probably perform better. And they might be able to perform better with no more practice.” A third factor is that some people are just plain gifted. “In education, if someone has a high intelligence, and is able to learn the information very quickly, then they might not have to study as much as someone who is really struggling to obtain that information,” Macnamara says.
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