It’s been quite the summer for debunking widely held beliefs. Last month there was a broohaha over an article in New Yorker from Harvard academic Jill Lepore that attempted to poo poo Clayton Christensen’s widely heralded thesis from The Innovator’s Dilemma. The article centred around the belief that the disruptive innovation at the heart of Christensen’s hypothesis was far from the bed of roses she believed it was claimed to be. That and the, now traditional, riposte that the case studies used in the book have not held up to scrutiny.
Suffice to say, the article has generated quite a bit of commentary, not to mention a response from Christensen himself. Slightly less coverage however has been received by a similarly piercing expose of a well trodden management myth.
Earlier this month a Princeton study was published that sought to debunk the belief, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that expertise was something that could be acquired with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
The research was a meta-analysis of nearly 90 studies looking at practice and performance. Collectively, the studies examined domains such as education, sport and music, with the one common ground being that they all required the acquisition of new skills through deliberate practice.
Now, it’s worth stating at the outset that the studies didn’t reveal that practice was worthless. Far from it, they pretty much all revealed that it’s impossible to become good at anything without putting in some work. What was surprising however that hard work on its own was not enough to deliver the improvements hoped for.
Indeed, across the whole gambit of studies, deliberate practice only accounted for 12% of the difference between individual performances. What’s more, this dropped even lower in anything remotely related to our professional endeavours. For instance, in education it accounted for just 4% of any difference, whilst it was found to account for just 1% of the difference in professional performance.
Whilst the levels were much higher in fields such as sport or games, the results are nevertheless a significant blow for the many self-help authors and training providers suggesting a whole lot of practice is required to improve our workplace performance.
The reality seems to be that for many people, devoted practice doesn’t make much difference at all. As the authors conclude:
“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.
For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”
The researchers suggested a number of other factors are as important, if not more so, than the amount of practice we put in. These include:
- How early in life we get started
- Our general intelligence
- Our personality type
- The capacity of our working memory
It all paints a rather brutal picture that we might toil for years without ever nearing perfection, and that we may simply be better off cutting our losses and applying ourselves in altogether more fruitful areas.