Here's The Problem With 'Practice Makes Perfect'

“Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.” It’s a lovely idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. As you might remember, Gladwell’s “magic number of greatness” was 10,000 hours of intense practice -- or approximately 10 years -- to become an elite performer. But as attractive as the 10,000-hour rule might be, it’s likely a myth.

The results: According to a new study published in Psychological Science -- a meta-analysis of 88 studies on “deliberate practice,” or structured activities intended to improve performance -- practice isn’t nearly as important as researchers have argued in the past. On average, only 12 percent of differences in success can be attributed to practice. According to the researchers:

Deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variance in performance for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education and less than 1 percent for professions.

That’s a large spread across disciplines. So why might practice be more important for an aspiring chess player and less important for a future academic? As Brooke Macnamara, psychological scientist and researcher on the study explains, how predictable a task is makes a big difference. In chess, for instance, you can practice alone. “You can practice the same move or the same structure of moves,” Macnamara says. “You can study the same pieces of information. The board always starts out the same way.”

In contrast, education is an ever-changing environment where students must constantly adapt to new information. “You can study quite a bit, but the semester essentially is going to keep moving forward,” she says.

If practice doesn’t make a difference, what does? Age, for starters. Individuals who pick up a violin or a swing a golf club at an early age may have a better chance of becoming a world-class violinist or pro golfer than those who try to learn later in life. According to the New York Times:

People who grow up in bilingual households fully integrate both languages at the same time that language-specialized areas in their brains are developing. The same may be true of many other skills -- there may exist a critical window of learning in childhood that primes the brain to pick up skills quickly later on.

Experience, which is not strictly considered practice, is another factor. “Having pressure to perform in a chess competition or in a sport during a game -- that is likely to be very helpful,” Macnamara says. “If someone has more experience in competitions, or just somehow does better with handling the pressure -- they will probably perform better. And they might be able to perform better with no more practice."

A third factor -- one we can all probably attest to anecdotally -- is that some people are just plain gifted. “In education, if someone has a high intelligence, and is able to learn the information very quickly, then they might not have to study as much as someone who is really struggling to obtain that information,” Macnamara says.

What’s the harm? The danger of the 10,000-hour rule: Wasted time, mostly. Practice won't compensate for lack of talent. “It might be better if they can just realize, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be a virtuoso at the violin,’” Macnamara says. "I’m not going to spend all this time and effort and potentially taking time away from other activities that would give me higher rewards or that I would succeed in.” Though it might not win you trophies, awards or raises, practicing for the sake of practicing can be a positive thing. The health benefits of exercise are life-changing. Regular writing (even if it's just journaling) can improve your sleep. So if plunking away on the piano relaxes you, by all means, continue!