Sorry, Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

“The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.” —Robert Frost

In A Nutshell

It turns out that there are too many different types of practice—and other factors built into the concept of success—for it to be true that practice makes perfect. You’ve probably heard that 10,000 hours of practicing anything will make anyone an expert. While practice does play a huge part in it, it’s how you spend all that time that really makes the difference. There’s a big difference between those who spend their time with a professional, getting feedback, and deliberately trying to get better, and those who are just playing around in their chosen field. There’s also the immeasurable that any teacher will tell you really sets apart the professionals—innate talent.

The Whole Bushel

Unfortunately, there’s only a limited amount of truth to the old joke: Practice won’t get you to Carnegie Hall after all.

At least, not just practice alone, and you’re certainly not going to improve if you’re doing the wrong kind of practice. We’ve all heard it. Whether we’re trying to learning a musical instrument or a new language, we’re told that practice makes perfect, and if we work hard and put our mind to it, we’ll be able to learn anything.

In 1993, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers even put a number to just how much we’ll have to practice to be a professional—10,000 hours. The research came from a study by researchers at the University of Colorado and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, who found that expertise in a certain area was linked to some very specific factors, practice being the most important. They stated that IQ wasn’t really, absolutely related to a person’s ability to perform in certain things, citing music as one specific example. There were other factors (basketball players having an advantage if they were tall, for example), but most of a person’s success they chalked up to a dedication to learning and excelling in whatever their chosen field was.

Specifically, they stated that what set the professionals apart from the amateurs was the time they committed to practicing. In his book, Malcolm Gladwell went a step further, and cited examples like Bill Gates and the Beatles, whose head start in their chosen field propelled them to the top of the pack.

As you might imagine, there are a couple of different problems with this whole theory. To get 10,000 hours of practice, that means about an hour and a half each day for 20 years. But, there are also different kinds of practice. There’s dedicated and serious practice, there’s practice in which you’re getting the feedback of someone who’s already a professional, and there’s just sort of mucking about with something.

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You might think that you’re practicing, but for those who want to become a professional, it’s a very deliberate type of practice that has to be done for real, professional-level improvement. That’s the kind where every note or every action matters, and you’re not just going through the motions.

There’s also the content of practice, what kind of focus you have, and how to optimize your time. Some types of practice focus more on reactions and natural rhythms, while other types test memory and retention, too.

Factor in genetics, and some people have an outright advantage that practice just isn’t going to make up for.

There are also a few other variables that are much, much harder (if not impossible) to measure. It’s now thought that age has something to do with how successful a person can become at something; the younger you are when you start, the faster you learn. Children who are raised in bilingual homes may also have an advantage that any type of practice can’t replace, as we’re slowly finding out that children who grow up learning to process two different languages are often better at processing other types of learning as well.

Plus, as any teacher would tell you, there’s the other factor that’s just immeasurable—talent. Some argue that the idea that professionals practice more than amateurs doesn’t mean that practice causes professionalism, it can also just mean that the professionals enjoy practicing more than the amateurs.

While the two are undoubtedly linked, we’re just not sure how much and what kind of practice will ultimately allow anyone to get to Carnegie Hall.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Too Hard for Science? Seeing If 10,000 Hours Make You an Expert
BBC Future: Why Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is wrong
Psychological Review: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance
NY Times: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent