The big idea: does practice make perfect?

Prodigies such as Emma Raducanu spend thousands of hours honing their skills, but could anyone deliver a world-class performance with enough dedication?

At the end of every edition of his children’s TV show Record Breakers, Roy Castle used to sing: “If you want to be the best, if you want to beat the rest, dedication’s what you need.” But is it all you need? Tennis star Emma Raducanu seemingly came from nowhere at 18 to triumph at this year’s US Open, prompting much speculation as to what in her early life could have seeded such prodigious success. Or perhaps it could all be summed up in the old joke: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!”

One thing most people have heard about practice is that you need to do 10,000 hours of it to get really good at something. This claim was widely popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008), which cited a study suggesting that the best violinists at a conservatoire were those who had done thousands of hours more solitary practice than their peers. But the author of that study, the psychologist K Anders Ericsson, said Gladwell had misrepresented it. “First, there is nothing special or magical about 10,000 hours,” Ericsson writes in his own book about his research, Peak (2016). “Gladwell could just as easily have mentioned the average amount of time the best violin students had practised by the time they were 18 – approximately 7,400 hours – but he chose to refer to the total practice time they had accumulated by the time they were 20, because it was a nice round number.” Moreover, he points out, the figure of 10,000 hours for the best 20-year-old violinists was “only an average”: half of the best players had not actually accumulated that much practice.

Most importantly, however: “Gladwell didn’t distinguish between the deliberate practice that the musicians in our study did and any sort of activity that may be labelled ‘practice’.” And this is the key idea of Ericsson’s own research: it’s not so much how much you practice, as what kind of practice you do. Simply repeating a task until it has become automatic and then doing it a lot – like, say, driving a car – does not count as real practice. (Indeed, people tend to become worse at driving over time.) That’s “naive practice”, which is close to Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

By contrast, improving at a complex skill such as a sport or a musical instrument requires “purposeful practice”, venturing repeatedly out of one’s comfort zone in a state of watchful self-criticism. For world-class performance, you additionally need a well-structured field of competitive endeavour (such as tennis or violin-playing) plus a teacher who can design the right kind of training activities. All that adds up to the ideal of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”, a method that has been widely adopted by sports psychologists.

And it never stops. It’s no accident that the word “practice” is used for both the activity of trying to get better at doing something, and the activity of simply doing it. (As in a lawyer’s or artist’s practice.) Because skills tend to deteriorate, very skilful people never stop practising. A world-class pianist will still play scales and arpeggios every day – constantly practising the basics, just as martial artists drill single movements or chess players solve puzzles. The rock-guitar virtuoso Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal recommends playing extremely simple exercises very, very slowly: this encourages a flow state where, as in many activities, practice becomes a kind of meditation and an end in itself.

There is no longer any doubt that everyone needs to practise – there is no such thing, at least among the virtuoso athletes and musicians that Ericsson has studied, as a prodigy who simply didn’t put in the hours and yet attained world-beating performance. The more radical suggestion of Ericsson’s, though, is that practice may be all you need to become great. Can that be true?

We know that practice the brain: musicians have a greater density of white matter in areas related to finger control and auditory processing. We know, too, that no one becomes great at something without an environment that allows flourishing, such as Raducanu’s support from the Lawn Tennis Association. (One major theme of Gladwell’s Outliers, too, is that “No one … ever makes it alone.”) We know that even Mozart was diligently hothoused by his father Leopold and wrote a ton of boring juvenilia. His only true “gift”, or so Ericsson argues, is the one we are all born with: a brain that can adapt and rewire itself through training.

On the other hand, since a fair amount of behavioural and personality traits are heritable to some degree, it would be surprising if there were absolutely zero role here for genetic effects, even keeping in mind the very complex ways that genes and environment interact. One intriguing candidate is a heritable characteristic – call it hard-workingness, determination, or whatnot – that simply makes you more able and likely to put in the hard work in your chosen field. As a review by David Z Hambrick et al (2020) argues: “There is now evidence to indicate the propensity to practise in a domain is substantially heritable.”

That would be handy, since there’s no getting around the fact that practice is often uncomfortable. The German composer Nils Frahm has mentioned that his youthful piano training was “nasty” and “boring”, but he stuck with it. “I understood that you have to suffer for something which is beautiful,” he told the New York Times. “This is my biggest criticism in our age, that we try to erase suffering and hardship from our lives in order to just be left only with beauty.” Yes, practice is hard, but it may just get you to Flushing Meadow.

Further reading

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin)

Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary Things, by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool (Vintage)

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger III, & Mark A McDaniel (Harvard)

Contributor

Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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