Noted Nazi propogandaist Joseph Goebbels famously said that if you repeat a lie often enough, sooner or later people will come to regard it as the truth. Whilst obviously not on the scale of some of the things Goebbels trotted out, the idea that to achieve expertise in something has become pretty much accepted since Malcom Gladwell popularised the notion in Outliers. As heuristics go, it’s one of the most widely used.
Is it correct though? Some new research suggests not. The study looked at the affect of practice on the skill level of chess players and musicians, and found that practice alone was not enough to explain the differences in performance amongst people.
“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” researcher Professor Zach Hambrick says.
It runs counter to the Gladwell heuristic of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of a subject. Hambrick goes on
“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” he says.
To reach their conclusion Hambrick and colleagues analysed 14 studies of chess players and musicians. They were looking in particular for the impact practice had on performance. They found that at most it accounted for perhaps 1/3 of the differences in skill level of chess players and musicians. The remainder can be explained by things such as natural ability, intelligence, the age in which we begin practising and so on.
Hambrick is at pains to point out that things aren’t all doom and gloom however. He suggests that rather than showing how many of us will never achieve greatness regardless of how often we practice, it does instead make clear the likelihood of achieving certain things, and thus give us a more realistic picture, thus allowing us to refocus efforts in more fertile areas.