Why Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Why Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Why you should care

A new study shows why we might want to lower our expectations. Just a bit.

The old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Punch line: Practice, practice, practice. And in an age when Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that anyone can do anything if they practice for 10,000 hours, suggesting otherwise seems overly pessimistic.

But a study from Princeton University did just that. Audaciously enough, its scientists suggest that, nope, practice does not always make perfect. Unless you’re predisposed to greatness, the only way you’re getting to the famed New York City concert hall is by buying a ticket, no matter how many hours you log on the piano and no matter how hard you try. The study tracked the impact of deliberate practice — defined as “activities designed with the goal of improving performance” — and found a:

  • 26 percent boost in games like Scrabble and chess
  • 21 percent boost in playing a musical instrument
  • 18 percent boost in sports
  • 4 percent boost in education (like a psych course)
  • less than 1 percent boost in professional skills, like piloting a fighter jet or refereeing a soccer game

What does this mean? For one, the Gladwellian view that “essentially anyone can do essentially anything is not scientifically defensible,” says David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. Practice is vitally necessary, but it’s not sufficient to get you to the top of the leaderboard. Just ask the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney needed practice, in a Gladwellian sense, including all those years on German stages. But what the Princeton study might say is they also needed the talent that made them Lennon and McCartney.

But the study does not give anyone an excuse not to practice, alas, or to while away our hours on the couch with potato chips and bonbons. The study does not excuse mediocre effort, per se: As Brooke Macnamara, the lead researcher, put it: Deliberate practice is important, “from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued.”

Oh well. For all of us regular Joes, it may be time to hang up those dreams of Olympic greatness or star-studded stages if we’re hoping practice will overcome our lack of talent. But we’re not supposed to give up. We can train our bodies to run farther, and all those Words With Friends games may well help us beat our brother at Scrabble (finally). We just may have to temper some of our expectations.

This OZY encore was originally published August 14, 2014.

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