(Deliberate) Practice (Over 10 Years) Makes Perfect (Better)

April 7, 2008 by Ken Nowack

“The number of years of experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance”

Anders Ericcson

Would you rather go to a doctor with 20 years of experience in a specialty area working at one of the most prestigious institutions or be treated by someone fresh out of medical school?

How long does it take to become truly proficient in one’s area of expertise and profession?  And if one truly is more experienced, does it ensure they are actually better?

  • Evidence shows that in the USA the highest skilled drivers (registered race and rally car drivers) have a much higher crash rate than the average driver (Naatanen and Summala, 1976).
  • Chess grand masters who can recall almost entire layouts from their games are no better than novices at recalling 6 or more randomly placed pieces
  • Actors who have been in the profession a long time truly are better at recalling their lines than those new to the profession but don’t have superior memories on any other subjects
  • Those who select stocks for others for a living are barely better than the rest of us (Ericcson et al., 2006).

There is, in fact, a big difference between “experts” and those “who are expert” in what they do.

In a recent book co-edited by Anders Ericcson called “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance“, the authors conclude that great performance comes mostly from two things:

1. Regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback

2. Deliberate practice

Two authors in the Cambridge Handbook (Janie Deaking and Stephen Cobley) cite prior research in which they analyzed diaries of 24 elite figure skaters to determine what might explain some of their performance success.  They found that the best skaters spent 68% of their practice doing really hard jumps and routines compared to those who were less successful (they spent about 48% of their time doing the same difficult things).

Having raw talent is wonderful but it’s what you do with it that really seems to matter.  “Only dead fish go with the stream” is an old saying–if you don’t work to get better it just doesn’t happen naturally.  Ericsson and other use the word “deliberate practice” to mean focused, structured, serious and detailed attempts to get better.  That means it has to be challenging and difficult (i.e., practicing the most difficult tasks).

From questionnaire responses of best and worst performers (Crews and Landers, 1991) it appears that deliberate practice seems to help automatic processing (i.e., the “let it  happen” versus “try to make it happen”).  Just think of the last time your truly tuned in to how hard to press your foot down on the brake of your car or pressure to put on the steering wheel to move it when you last drove your car.  Since you have driven for years, little cognitive processing is consumed with the “how” giving you more opportunity to engage in other activities (some of which actually impair your effectiveness in driving safely).

As it turns out, expert performance requires about ten years, or ten to twenty thousand hours of deliberate practice. Little evidence exists for expert performance before ten years of deliberate practice in any field1.

Truly, “past performance is the best predictor of future success.”  The requirement of deliberate practice to truly become a higher performer gives us some clues as to why the traditional techniques and methods to select talent are only modest at helping us to identify high performers in the future2.


Work Sample Tests (.33 to .54)
Cognitive Ability/Intelligence Tests (.27 to .51)
Assessment Centers (.41 to .50)
Peer/Supervisory Ratings (.41 to .49)
Work History (.24 to .35)
Emotional Intelligence (.20 to .24)
Unstructured Interviews (.15 to .38)
Personality Inventories (.15 to .31)
Reference Checks (.14 to .26)
Training Ratings (.13 to .15)
Self-Ratings (.10 to .15)
Education/Grade Point Average (.00 to .10)
Interests/Values (.00 to .10)
Age (.-.01 to .00)

So, no wonder I have been so unsuccessful in most of my executive coaching assignments–not only is it challenging to get executives I work with to put any new behavior into practice but I can’t seem to get them to do it for any length of time!  I guess old dogs are indeed hard to teach new tricks unless they are willing to practice it correctly over and over again….Be well….
[tags]selecting talent, talent development, executive coaching, performance, mastery, expertise, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack, envisia, deliberate practice[/tags]

  1. K. Anders Ericsson, ed., The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996, pp.10-11 []
  2. Schmidt, F. & Hunter, J. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings.  Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-274 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

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