A decade ago Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller “Outliers” popularised the idea of ‘10,000 hours’: ““Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” Gladwell wrote, drawing on anecdotes from famous success-havers (like Bill Gates and the Beatles), but also on the 1993 paper (which according to Google Scholar has been cited more than 9,800 times)… The original finding was simple, and compelling: The very best, expert players — those who were considered elite — were the ones who had practiced the most. The conclusions implied that deliberate practice was the most important ingredient needed to achieve elite status, more important than inborn characteristics like genetics, or personality”
So does this idea hold up when subjected to rigorous testing? “The journal Royal Society Open Science published a replication of an influential 1993 study on violin players at a music school in the journal Psychological Review…
The replication — conducted by Brooke Macnamara and Megha Maitra of Case Western Reserve University — included a somewhat larger sample size and tighter study controls, and was preregistered (meaning that the scientists locked their methods and analysis plans in place before they collected any data, preventing them from retroactively changing their premise to fit their findings).
It finds that practice does matter for performance, but not nearly as much as the original article claimed, and surprisingly, it works differently for elite performers.
“In fact, the majority of the best violinists had accumulated less practice alone than the average amount of the good violinists,” the authors write. Practice still mattered: It accounted for 26 percent of the difference between good violinists and the less accomplished students. But the original study claimed that practice accounted for 48 percent of the difference.”
Other people too have found that the original ’10,000 hours’ idea overstresses the importance of practice: “A 2016 meta-analysis — also co-authored by Macnamara — in Perspectives in Psychological Science looked at 33 studies on the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic achievement and found that practice just doesn’t matter that much. More precisely, the analysis found, practice can account for 18 percent of the difference in athletic success. Put another way, if we compare batting averages between two baseball players, the amount of time the players spent in the batting cage would only account for 18 percent of the reason one player’s average is better than the other.
Which isn’t nothing. But it also means that a great many other factors — like genetics, personality, life history, etc. — makes up the majority of the difference. “Almost across the board, practice should improve one’s performance,” Macnamara told me in 2016.
Practice matters, yes. But at the same time, it’s unlikely to bridge the gap between natural superstars and your average player.”
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