Sylva Spoon

So practice doesn't make perfect?

Tom BartlettComment
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea that the mastery of a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. This idea quickly spread, for it seemed logical. The more you do something, the better you become at it. Throw 10 years at something and you'll be at the top of your game.

This came from a 1993 paper by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer titled 'The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance'. Within it, they look at a longitudinal study into musicians. The sample group all started playing their chosen instruments (violin or piano) around the same age, but those that became professionals had accumulated an average of 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were 20 years old (compared to 4,000-5,000 hours accumulated by those that became teachers).

(Interestingly they also found that below the expert level, once you've accumulated a certain amount of practice, you don't easily lose those skills, meaning you can stop participating in an activity and pick it up again more easily later).

Personally, I quite liked this rule. So long as I keep practicing I'll steadily improve and if I see others who appear to be progressing quicker than myself, it's because they're getting more practice in.

Getting some practice in
However recent research, looking at the results from 88 studies into highly skilled individuals found that the amount of practice you do only predicts 12% of your performance.

"Becoming an expert takes more than practice"
Looking at these categories, I'm not exactly sure where carving would fall. I would probably guess it's somewhere between sport and music, as it requires high levels of coordination, creativity and an understanding of the tools you are using.

The research did confirm that practice is still an important factor, but not as important as other factors. Further research will be needed to discover what those factors are, but the authors speculated that important factors might include:

  • the age you became involved in the activity
  • cognitive abilities such as working memory
  • personality
  • opportunities outside of your control

For me it seems that the key message on deliberate practice is that you can't succeed without it, but you can practice and still not achieve success.