What do a few top researchers, at least six bestselling authors*, umpteen media articles and blog posts, Ben Franklin, I, and now you have in common (I added you to the list, assuming you are here because of the title)? Answer: An interest in pondering whether practice makes perfect.
*Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Angela Duckworth (Grit), Cal Newport (Deep Work), Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics). James Clear (Atomic Habits), Carol Dweck (Mindset)
Everyone wants to know the answer to this question: Is exceptionalism a product of nature or nurture?
In other words, are we born with the ability to excel in some skills, or can those skills be cultivated through practice?
He said, she said, they said: The History of Talent v Practice
To answer whether practice makes perfect, let's review some critical events from the last few decades in the area of skill development.
Unlike other historical accounts, this one is important, not merely from an academic perspective. The history here will impact you personally regarding whether (or not) you choose to pursue certain activities in your life.
In the interest of time, I'll paraphrase some of these key moments:
1. It's all about Deliberate Practice, not Talent
Anders Ericsson, a reputed Swedish psychologist and later Professor at Florida State University fired the first shot in the debate on whether practice makes perfect.
In 1993, Ericsson, with his fellow researchers, published a fascinating academic paper. The gist:
Contrary to popular opinion, innate Talent is NOT everything; extended deliberate practice (for about ten years) can make someone an expert in most fields, with a few caveats (as listed below).
Caveats: there may be areas where genetic predispositions matter, such as basketball (need to be tall), gymnastics (better to be short), etc. Also, there are constraints such as motivation, willpower, environmental factors that can impact achieving expertise.
Outside of these caveats, Ericsson implied, the world is your oyster!
So, just like that, you could dream of becoming the next Tiger Woods. Optimists rejoiced.
Effort - 1; Talent - 0
2. Ten Thousand hours
Ericsson's theory, above, was primarily confined to academic circles until the brilliant Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea using the concept of 10,000 hours in his book, Outliers. Gladwell posited that if you spent 10,000 hours of practice in a field, you could become an expert at it.
Thus, after Outliers was released in 2008, many soon-to-be parents started to enroll their yet-to-be-born children in coding boot camps and piano lessons – to get a head start. They were convinced 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect.
3. Blogosphere and Techpreneurs add fuel
'Put in your 10k' entered the self-help lexicon. Influential bloggers, such as Cal Newport, and techpreneurs, casually threw in deliberate practice/10K hour references into any conversations they could.
Cal Newport, for instance, said the practice changed his life. Good for him. Everyone wanted to imitate him.
4. Thanks for the shout out, but uh, you're mistaken
Ericsson wrote a popular book, 'Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise,' to further promote the theory of deliberate practice, which was already gaining a lot of traction, and to debunk Gladwell's representation of deliberate practice as needing to put in 10,000 hours.
Ericsson argued that it was not about quantity but the quality of practice that mattered.
Though, without Gladwell's 10K reference and shout-out, the theory of deliberate practice would possibly have not entered popular culture.
5. Don't belittle me, says Talent
In 2014, in response to Ericsson's theories, other researchers (e.g., McNamara et al.) countered Ericsson's deliberate practice theory with their own. They concluded that while deliberate practice may be important, it does not explain why some people do better than others. Their argument in short was, Talent and other factors play a significant part; practice helps, they said, but practice alone cannot make perfect!
Back to square one. All the pessimists now rejoiced. 'I told you so' was their refrain to people who tried and failed to be the next Tiger Woods.
Effort - 1; Talent - 1
6. Apples and Oranges
Then, in 2019, Ericsson rebuffed his research critics, above, with another research paper. Ericsson refuted the researchers who said his theory didn't hold up. According to Ericsson, the 'Talent'-promoting researchers had misunderstood the definition of deliberate practice. These researchers were conflating structured or naïve practice (oranges) with deliberate practice (apples). He still insisted that practice makes perfect.
Effort - 1; Talent – 0
7. Current affairs
Unfortunately, that's where we stand, as of this writing, because Ericsson sadly passed away in June 2020.
If you're wondering why I regaled you with this back and forth exchange between talent and effort, it's because, as of today, we don't have a clear scientific consensus on whether talent matters or if practice makes perfect. That said, I have a handy crystal ball that may give us some clues.
Okay, I have gazed long enough at my crystal ball and have some good news and some bad news.
Bad news: You cannot beat Usain Bolt in the Olympic 200m if you don't have some vital innate factors that influence running. Talent does have a part to play.
It is only a matter of time before Ericsson's no-talent-required hypothesis is debunked. Almost all of the research community is reasonably certain about this.
Good news: Most of us don't train to beat Usain Bolt at the Olympics, but we want to do well enough in our local races and perform to the best of our abilities. Now, that can happen through deliberate practice. So, there is an excellent reason for you to understand and implement the concept of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice makes perfect (enough).
So, what on earth is deliberate practice? Before we get into that, let's talk about the concept of practice in general.
Learning new skills
I can safely say that most of us wish to stay relevant and not go the way of the dinosaurs. The best way to stay relevant is through learning.
Developing a new skill from scratch usually does not take very long. You can go from an absolute novice to an intermediate level with training and practice in a matter of weeks or months when learning, for instance, to drive a car, play an instrument, or participate in a sport.
During this period, you learn the basics and practice several new skills, all at once, for a short period. This practice gets you enough expertise, so when you drive your car, the world does not have to go on curfew, or when you play your instrument, people need not go running for their noise-canceling headphones.
Then, what? How do you go from just being able to lob tennis balls back and forth to winning matches at increasingly competitive levels?
Through practice, you say. But here's the kicker. Unfortunately, depending on the kind of practice you engage in, there could be a world of difference in the results.
The different types of practice
Who knew practice could be of different types? Well, now, you do.
For most of us, practice means spending a few minutes or, if we commit ourselves, a few hours each week going through the motions. Playing recreational tennis matches with peers is a classic example of what most of us refer to as practice.
You make an effort to get to the tennis court and go through the motions from start to finish every time. There is no doubt you'll get better at your game, but then you're going to plateau after a while.
This kind of practice is referred to as 'naive practice.' You practice equally on your strengths and weaknesses, without feedback.
With naïve practice, you can reach an acceptable standard of performance at a recreational level.
If mastery in tennis is what you're after, indulging in naïve practice, whether it's for 1,000 or 10,000 hours, does not matter. Ouch!
To be a pro or a master chef, you've got to take your practice to the next level.
When you engage in group practice sessions without personalized feedback, it's called structured practice. Yes, you may have an instructor or a teacher guiding the session, but with a one-size-fits-all framework, you're not going to be able to work on your weaknesses with this kind of practice.
Unfortunately, this is the practice most of our kids commonly get, be it in academics or sports.
In purposeful practice, you engage in solitary practice, mostly based on training or instructions you receive from expert sources. However, you don't get constant feedback on your performance from the experts. Purposeful practice is closer to but falls short of the ideal way to practice.
Take the example of learning a classical dance routine. I can watch an expert video and try to copy the moves. But I could be doing it all wrong and not realize my mistakes since no expert watches me perform to tell me where I'm right or wrong. My own eyes aren't trained to spot those errors.
Finally, the holy grail of practice – deliberate practice. In Ericsson's words, this kind of practice, sustained over a long period, is what separates the wheat from the chaff. He contends that the top performers in any field get to the top position through deliberate practice.
In other words, deliberate practice makes perfect.
What exactly is deliberate practice?
There are four key attributes to deliberate practice. All four of these rules must be met for the practice to qualify as deliberate.
I'll illustrate with the example of a budding violinist, Josh. Josh is keen to perfect a notoriously difficult violin piece – Bach's Chaconne in d minor from Parita. Feel free to substitute with any other example you can think of if Bach's not your taste.
Here are the four rules that need to be satisfied for a practice session to qualify as deliberate practice.
1. Individual training by a well-qualified teacher
Josh should want to learn this difficult piece at the outset, and we're assuming he knows how to hold a violin and play at least fluently at an intermediate/advanced level.
Josh requires a teacher who'll work with him one-one. This teacher should be well-qualified and know the intricacies of the piece well herself.
2. Teacher should provide and communicate concrete goals for the student
The teacher should break down the piece into small components that Josh can aspire to complete, one at a time. She should also show Josh what the definition of a perfect rendition of Bach's Chaconne would look like.
Josh can internalize the end goal because it's concrete. That, in turn, will help provide direction to his practice sessions
3. Teacher to provide a clear plan, with built-in feedback
The teacher should give Josh a clear lesson plan for his practice sessions. Routinely, through these practice sessions, Josh should demonstrate his learning back to his teacher. The teacher should then review and provide Josh with feedback as soon as possible (immediate is best) on his performance with corrective steps, as needed.
4. Measure, revise, and modify the approach
Together, Josh and his teacher should then adjust the practice sessions to incorporate any feedback. With repeated practice and feedback, Josh may be able to achieve his goal. Eventually.
Deliberate practice is anything but comfortable
By now, hopefully, you've figured out that deliberate practice can be challenging. It requires you to work outside your comfort zone.
Think of it as a thrill ride on a roller coaster for someone like me who gets nauseous quickly and detests unpredictable movements. To say I loathe rollercoasters would be quite an understatement. That said, let's say some kids in the family force me into joining them on a roller coaster ride without giving me much choice in the matter.
Here's the parallel between being on the roller coaster and the different types of practice:
The zone out part: The ride has just begun, it's slow and pleasant, I get to see beautiful views, everyone is smiling. The zone-out part is like naïve or structured practice. The practicing doesn't bother you; you go with the flow.
The hold on to your seat part: The roller coaster gears pick up some speed; you grip the bars a little tighter, but you're still in it and not too bothered. The adrenaline rush can be fun. Holding on to your seat is akin to purposeful practice, a little tricky, but you may even enjoy it.
The freak-out part: This is where it all goes crazy; you can't wait for the ride to end and start to pray even if you're never prayed a day in your life. Deliberate practice is a little like this. It's like getting into a zone that's quite uncomfortable while working on something that does not come easily or naturally to you.
Sorry to sound like Eeyore, but as far as practice is concerned, if you're having a lot of fun, you're not doing it right.
I don't know about roller coasters, but you are bound to get better eventually in building real-life skills using deliberate practice (assuming you get timely feedback from qualified experts). From there, you can challenge yourself to the next level. This kind of continuous growth is why extended deliberate practice makes perfect and can get you on the path of mastery.
Skill development and upkeep are critical in today's fast-changing world. It only takes a few years for technologies to go from cutting-edge to obsolete. For us to stay relevant, we require to differentiate ourselves with expert skills that stand out. So, it's essential to focus attention on building skills through deliberate practice.
Experience does not equal expertise
Controversial as it sounds, just because someone has worked in a field for twenty years does not automatically make them an expert. It is not about quantity.
You gain expertise by honing specific skills through deliberate practice. Let's face it; most 'experienced' professionals don't do that.
It is no doubt we all like to stay in our comfort zones. But repeating what we already do well or what comes easily to us isn't going to make us experts.
Repetition is essential, but once you have something committed to memory, your brain can handle the task almost reflexively. No point wasting expensive cognitive resources on mundane tasks.
For example, if you have trouble with your short game in golf, then playing the 18-hole course three times a week isn't going to cut it. Yes, you are out playing golf for five hours each time (for a total of fifteen hours), but essentially you are practicing your short game for just three of those fifteen hours.
You are better off focusing your energies and time on the range practicing your short game, for an hour and a half each day and heading out the course just once. Eventually you'll spend the same time but will have radically better results.
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
Here are some key points on how to incorporate the deliberate element into your practice:
- Don't waste time repeating what you already do well; find out what your Achilles heel and focus your practice on that
- Clearly define your goals
- Find and work with a qualified expert
- Get feedback as close to real-time as possible. The longer the gap between the problem and feedback, the less effective it tends to be
- Learn to embrace the suck
Every single article written about deliberate practice references Benjamin Franklin. I'm not about to break tradition. So, here's the Franklin anecdote relating to deliberate practice.
Benjamin Franklin was good at logical thinking but couldn't convey his ideas as well on paper. After reading some of young Benjamin's writings, his father encouraged him to improve his vocabulary and writing style. So, 14-year old Benjamin chose to learn from well-written essays in a popular publication, The Spectator.
Franklin would pick one essay, make brief notes on each sentence's content, and then jumble the notes up. After a few days, he'd try to recreate the article using his jumbled notes. Then he compared his essay to the original, making corrections and learning through the process.
But Franklin didn't stop there. To challenge himself further, he started to take notes in verse (poetry instead of prose), again jumbled them up and eventually, tried to recreate the essay, this time using his own poems as the source.
That, in a nutshell, is deliberate practice. Franklin practiced deliberately before the phrase had even been coined.
Yes, deliberate practice can be tedious, uncomfortable and painful. Why bother? Because we owe it to ourselves to rise above mediocrity. That requires practice. Deliberate practice.