The Myth of Deliberate Practice Part 2. Does 10,000 Hours Really Make Me A Master?
By: Kenneth Nowack
Does deliberate practice always lead to enhanced effectiveness and performance? In Part 2 of this blog we continue the discussion.
Recently, psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues from Princeton University recently conducted the largest review and meta-analysis of studies exploring the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in several domains. Their research is really a great study trying to test the widespread “10,000-hour rule” popularized in a number of books (e.g., Gladwell’s Outliers in 2008; Colvin’s Overrated in 2008).
Their research included 111 independent samples, with 157 effect sizes and a total sample of 11,135 participants5. They explored the deliberate practice and performance relationship in various domains and two sets of factors. The first was based on the predictability of a task or how often the behavior might be expected to be performed (e.g., handling an aviation emergency to running each day). The second factor they looked at was how the previous research was conducted and how practice and performance was actually measured (e.g., recall or log).
Their findings suggest that their claim that the claim that individual differences in performance are largely accounted for by individual differences in amount of deliberate practice is not supported by the available empirical evidence. In fact, Macnamara and colleagues found that the percentage of variance accounted by deliberate practice in five specific domains was:
- Games 26%
- Music 21%
- Sports 18%
- Education 4%
- Professions <1%
Some research suggests that deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to explain individual differences in skills6. Across a wide range of piano-playing skill, deliberate practice accounted for nearly half the variance (45.1%) in sight-reading performance in the authors study.
However, working memory capacity (which is highly stable and heritable) accounted for a significant proportion of the variance (7.4%), above and beyond deliberate practice. Working memory is our short term memory which is an ability to remember information over a short period of time.
Their results challenge the view, advocated by Ericsson as well as other researchers, that basic capabilities and skills such as working memory capacity are largely unimportant for expert performance. Although it seems reasonable to predict that anyone who engages in thousands of hours of deliberate practice will develop a high level of skills in any field, it appears that our basic skills and abilities may actually limit the ultimate level of performance that can be attained.
Another study explored the popular 10,000 “rule” by examining associations between musical ability and practice (rs = .18–.36) in 10,500 Swedish twins7.
Together, the current research does indeed suggest that practice doesn’t always make “perfect” if you don’t have the minimal capabilities and the proper mindset to begin with. Surprisingly, associations between music practice and music ability were predominantly genetic, and, contrary to the researcher’s hypothesis, nonshared environmental influences did not contribute. Genetic influences on hours of practice were substantial, explaining 69% of the variance in males and 41% in females, with additional shared-environmental influences in females (21%). Music abilities were moderately heritable, ranging between 12% and 61% (Ullen, 2014).
Genes and environment are both important for essentially any behavior and practice is no exception. However, there is a strong indication that extreme environmentalist models of performance and expertise (e.g., “practice is everything”) are likely to be just an urban myth.
So, vary your deliberate practice and just hope you don’t have a genetic intelligence and ability set point that limits just how good you can be. Taken together, these studies don’t’ support the popular wisdom that “leaders are made and not born.” A lot of researchers and coaches will be watching the human lab animal Dan McLaughlin to see how he does!
- K. Anders Ericsson , ed., The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996, pp.10-11.
- Hölzel, B., et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 [
- Tang, Y-Y., et al., (2012). Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207817109
- Lally, P. et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.10002/ejsp.674
- Macnamara, B. et al., (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Pyschological Science, 25, 1-11, doi:10.1177/0956797614535810
- Meinz & Hambrick (2011). Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill: The role of Working Memory Capacity. Psychological Science, 20, 280-285
- Mosing, M. M., Madison, G., Pedersen, N. L., & Ullen, F. (2014). Practice does not make perfect: No causal rffect of music practice on music ability, Psychological Science, 25, doi: 10.1177/0956797614541990
- Plomin, R., Shakeshaft, N. G., McMillan, A., & Trzaskowski, M. (2014). Nature, nurture, and expertise. Intelligence, 45, 46–59
Click the link below to access an electronic copy of the original research article in APA’s psycnet database. (Access requires a subscription, or you can purchase individual articles.)
Nowack, K. (2017, April 17). Facilitating Successful Behavior Change: Beyond Goal Setting to Goal Flourishing. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000088
Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research publishes evidence-based articles that advance the body of professional knowledge and expertise for providing psychologically-based services to improve organizations and the people who work in them. It is a unique peer-reviewed journal; CPJ articles meet scientific standards for rigor and support, but are also readable, practical, and actionable.