Can putting in 10,000 hours of practice make you a master of your craft? Malcolm Gladwell claimed it could, but sadly his assertion simply doesn’t hold water. Practice can’t make up for a lack of natural ability - which is why playing to your strengths is so important.
Gladwell’s best-selling book, Outliers, made popular the notion that you need to practice a skill for 10,000 hours or more to master it. Gladwell confidently stated, "Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours."
It didn’t take long for the researchers he was referring to, notably Anders Ericsson, a professor at the University of Colorado, to accuse Gladwell of over simplifying their findings. Ericsson noted that 10,000 hours was an average and many of the best musicians in his study had practiced a lot less. He also slated Gladwell for not mentioning that the quality of the practice is hugely important.
What practice can’t buy
A study of baseball players revealed that the average player’s vision is not the usual 20/20 but a superior 20/13, which affords an advantage that even massive amount of practice may not match.
Of course the question isn’t whether talent exists (most agree that it does) or whether practice helps (everyone agrees that it does); the issue is to what degree many hours of practice can influence your development of mastery.
How much difference does it make?
Researches at Princeton University recently reviewed 88 studies of practice and performance in the fields of games, music, sports and education. In games the difference made by practice was 26%, in music, 21%; in sports, 18%, in education it was 4%, and in professional performance less than 1%.
As the researchers put it, "We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued."
If practice isn’t the main differentiator, what is? It could be a physical advantage, like better eyesight, a personality more suited to particular tasks, a higher level of intelligence, starting to learn the skill earlier, and many others.
What’s the implication for us?
I think these findings underscore the importance of playing to your strengths. If you are pretty good at something and you put in deliberate practice the odds are that you can become very good at it. If you’re poor or mediocre, even long periods of practice are unlikely to put you close to the top. Of course it may be that you want to practice something just for the fun of it. Plenty of people take up a musical instrument, for instance, for the pleasure of playing it, even playing it badly.
The other implication may be to be sceptical when the latest best-seller declares with certainty that there is a simple answer to anything. Each year one or two come out declaring that they, finally, have the answer to fast and lasting weight loss; if any of them did have such a solution, the parade would stop.
We are drawn to definitive statements, despite daily evidence that little in life is simple. We also tend to find most charismatic the people who convey total certainty about their view of the world, despite historical evidence that such types often lead us down some very dangerous paths.
My tip: whatever the context, when you someone offers you 'a' solution, listen. When they tell you they have 'the' solution, beware.