Those of us who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” are familiar with his 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that the key to achieving mastery in a given domain is to spend 10,000 hours of practice in that field. While this is an inspiring rule of thumb that suggests that with hard work, anyone can enjoy a high level of performance in a chosen area, a recent article by Macnamara, Hambrick, and Oswald indicates that the old saying “practice makes perfect” simply doesn’t tell the whole story.
In the article, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of studies on performance to settle the question of whether high achievement in a domain is based on (1) innate ability or (2) deliberate practice.
The results suggest that both are important, though in some area, practice is less important than the popular literature may have led us to believe.
Here is a brief overview of the findings:
1. The impact of practice on performance varies significantly depending on the field. So, while practice accounts for 26% of the variance in performance in games (e.g. chess), 21% for music, and 18% for sports, in the areas of education (4%) and professions (<1%), the effects were much weaker.
2. Practice has more of an influence on performance when you are engaging in predictable activities (e.g. running) than less predictable activities (e.g. aviation emergencies).
3. Studies that had people reflect back on how much they had practiced, showed a stronger association between practice and performance than studies that had people log their practice in real-time. (To me, this suggests that people who achieved a high level of performance may have over-estimated how much they practiced when looking back retrospectively).
The authors argued that others factors that play a role in overall performance could include intelligence, working memory capacity, specific abilities, and taking up the activity at an appropriate age (which would vary, depending on the field).
The bottom line? The great Larry Bird’s advice is a good way to think of it:
“A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.”
While practice and determination are related to improvement in a given area, everyone may not have the capacity to become the next Serena Williams, Bobby Fischer, or John Legend. Determining your unique strengths and finding ways to capitalize on those will enable you to realize your potential and achieve the greatest sense of satisfaction.
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