Does practice really make perfect?

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The ‘10,000 hours’ theory often comes up when I’m running workshops and the discussion turns to practising and applying learning back at the day job. Many participants have read or heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ (2008), or Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice’ (2012). Some may be more up to date about the original researchers’ response to Gladwell’s interpretation. So is it really that simple? And mind-numbingly repetitive? Just keep slogging away at something for 10,000 hours and – some years later – ta dah! “Look at me!”

Does it simply take 10,000 hours of practice to achieve exceptional performance?

It depends… if you’re talking about winning an Olympic gold medal, extensive and deliberate practice is a significant factor (the ‘deliberate’ is important: this basically means setting incremental targets for future practice and reflecting on the success or otherwise of the steps taken to achieve them). But just putting the hours in misses the point.

The research that Gladwell and others seized upon for the 10,000 hours idea was conducted by Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer* back in 1993 and proposed that performing at the highest level depends on the quantity and quality of practice. Seems that Gladwell went for the former and not both aspects, leading Ericsson to say that ‘Outliers’ had misinterpreted the research. Indeed, Ericsson and colleagues cited examples of ‘experts’ with plenty of hours worked who fared no better in tests than novices.

So no, it’s not just about slogging away for hour after hour. And for most of us mere mortals, it’s not about winning Olympic gold medals either.

What most of us would like is to reach a level of proficiency – and maybe expertise – in the skills we need for everyday life, whether that’s being a manager, a weekend long-distance runner, or a parent. According to Ericsson and colleagues, we can become competent or proficient in about 50 hours. That’s a lot more realistic than 10,000. So far, so good. But when we’ve put the 50 hours in, then what happens? We can plateau.

If you’ve ever tried explaining to a novice something that you can do automatically you’ll get an idea of what I mean. The skill has literally become automated – we can do it without thinking consciously about it. But even if we’re still clocking up hundreds of hours, without that thinking we can plateau. To raise our game higher we need to consciously focus on what we’re doing and how we do it.

Try one or a combination of these steps to focus on your practice and build your skills:

  1. Set clear goals for your performance – from Big Picture long-term chunked down to smaller steps along the way, including the very next step.
  2. Make incremental changes each time you do a task and notice what works / doesn’t. Try doing the same old thing differently and notice what happens (it will feel awkward at first – try folding your arms the other way to how you would normally to see what I mean).
  3. Get feedback – from colleagues and/or your managers.
  4. Observe yourself, for example in a video. This is painstakingly done in sport; you can also do this at work, such as when you’re making a presentation.
  5. Observe others who excel at the skill you want to improve. Draw inspiration from those in your immediate circle, online communities and literature.
  6. Seek a challenge, such as something that you’ve shied away from at work, and block out time to learn and practise.
  7. Work with a mentor or coach on the issue – commit to setting tasks or challenges and reporting back on progress.
  8. Manage your weaknesses. Elite athletes have to focus on working to eliminate them; we can figure out how to bring our strengths to bear on weaknesses and may find ways to systematise or delegate to better handle them.
  9. Reflect on your performance – in a journal, using an app or chart to track progress.
  10. Get a buddy. You may co-coach together on a particular skill you both want to master, or swap tips on different strengths and skills that each values in the other.

For a detailed piece on the theories and their application in sport, see ‘An Overview and Critique of the ‘10,000 hours rule’ and ‘Theory of Deliberate Practise’ by J North of Sport Coaching Innovations at the Carnegie Faculty of Leeds Metropolitan University.

*Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993) ‘The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance’, Psychological Review (100) 363-406.

You may also find this post useful: What difference could marginal gains make for you?


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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