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Why Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

Boy in front of chess game

The old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Punch line: Practice, practice, practice.

In an age when Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that anyone can do anything if they practice for 10,000 hours — in a way, codifying the old saying, “you can do anything if you put your mind to it” — the idea that maybe practice can’t get us as far as we’d like seems overly pessimistic.

But a new study from Princeton University suggests that practice doesn’t always make perfect. Unless you’re predisposed to staccato greatness, the only way you’re getting to the famed New York City concert hall is by buying a ticket, no amount of practice to the contrary.

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

“The view that essentially anyone can do essentially anything is not scientifically defensible,” says David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

Practice remains an important part of getting better, of course, and the researchers aren’t suggesting we stop trying to improve. Instead, the study suggests that practice alone won’t put a person atop the leader board.

    Lennon and McCartney needed practice — but what the Princeton study might say is they also needed the talent that made them Lennon and McCartney.
“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” says Brooke Macnamara, the lead researcher, who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton.

The finding counteracts Gladwell’s rule, which essentially adds up to years. Just ask the Beatles (whose years on German stages Gladwell attributes to their later success) or more recently, Dan McLaughlin, who traded his photography career for a commitment to go from basic golfer to the PGA tour with 10,000 hours of dedicated study on the links. He started his mission two years ago, and he’s just under halfway there, according to his latest blog entry.

Lennon and McCartney needed practice, in a Gladwellian sense — but what the Princeton study might say is they also needed the talent that made them Lennon and McCartney.

For 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. That doesn’t mean you can’t train your body to run farther, or that all those Words With Friends games won’t help you best your brother at Scrabble (finally). It just means you might need to temper some of your expectations. 

As for McLaughlin, he’s had some golfing success so far. Is this commentary on the nature of the PGA and his chosen sport? Or has he found a hidden talent? Only another 4,000 and some odd hours to go before we’ll know if his nature is enough to let his practice pay off. 

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