“If practice makes perfect, and no one’s perfect, then why practice?”
Billy Corgan

Practice makes perfect according to an old saying.

Or at least if you do it enough you will become an expert.

Or does it?

Experts vs. Being an Expert

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

In a 2006 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:

  • Regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback
  • Deliberate difficult practice

Two authors in the Cambridge Handbook (Janice Deaking and Stephen Cobley) 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 flow” is an old saying–if you don’t work to get better it just doesn’t happen naturally. Ericsson and others use the words “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).

Ericsson and colleagues argue that little evidence exists for expert performance before ten years of deliberate practice in any field1.

But, maybe that is just an urban myth and it’s time to revise this popular belief supported by a number of best selling authors.

What Kind of Practice is Best if You Want to Improve?

A practical test of this “10,000” rule is being done by Dan McLaughlin who quit is job at the age of 30 and has been practicing his golf game six days a week, living off savings and some wise stock picks and by renting his house. He has about 6,000 more hours of practice to go in order to see if he will get good enough to play in the Masters Golf Tournament. His results to date–4,000 hours have lowered his handicap to 7 which means he is better than 85% of the male U.S. golfing public. Dan keeps an interesting Blog which highlights his journey.

Dan is using the latest research on improving skill, motor performance and memory in how he practices. He uses a training approach called interleaving which is “mixing up” the things you do instead of deliberately doing the same thing over and over (e.g., hitting 100 drives, shooting 50 free throws, giving 100 motivational speeches). Instead he mixes up his clubs, targets and difficulty of his challenges.

Like the research suggests, interleaving causes performance in the short term to decrease but enhances overall success over time. Therefore, practicing tasks in an interleaved (random) order generally results in inferior practice performance but induces superior retention compared with practicing in a repetitive order. So, if you want your kid to become a better hitter in baseball, having them see a variety of pitches in an hour (e.g., slider, fastball, change up, curve) is better than just practicing trying to get the hang of dealing with one pitch for a prolonged period of time (now I find this out).

New research from a group of UCLA researchers, using brain imaging called functional MRI discovered that connectivity of specific regions of the brain were strengthened using interleaved practice (varied and diverse sessions) versus a repetitive conditions((Lin, C., et al., (2012). Interleaved practice enhances skill learning and the functional connectivity of fronto-parietal networks. Human Brain Mapping, DOI: 10.1002/hbm.2209)).

These results strongly hint that if you want to develop better skills, memory and psychomotor performance it is really better to spice up your deliberate practice with variety and not just spend a chunk of time doing the same thing over and over (e.g., practice a variety of dives in an hour versus just focusing on one type of dive). Expect your practice sessions to be bad but over time your performance will actually significantly improve.

How Long Does it Take for New Habits to Form–Part I?

How long does it take for our brain to show actual changes based on the practice of new behaviors?

We have at least some clues from a couple of studies on the practice of mindfulness meditation that have recently been published:

  1. Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program created significant changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress (increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus) compared to a control group2.
  2. Practicing mindfulness meditation for 4-weeks demonstrated significantly higher white matter neuroplasticity in short-term meditation3.

It appears that practicing a new behavior between 4 to 8 weeks begins to show actual changes in our brain (“plasticity”). However, whether we can translate these changes into enhance performance and effectiveness was not possible to discern with these studies.

How Long Does it Take for New Habits to Form–Part II?

Research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the UK suggest that new behaviors can become automatic, on average, between 18 to 254 days but it depends on the complexity of what new behavior you are trying to put into place and your personality4.

They studied volunteers who chose to change an eating, drinking or exercise behavior and tracked them for success. They completed a self-report diary which they entered on a website log and were asked to try the new behavior each day for 84 days. For the habits, 27 chose an eating behavior, 31 a drinking behavior (e.g., drinking water), 34 an exercise behavior and 4 did something else (e.g., meditation).

Analysis of all of these behaviors indicated that it took 66 days, on average, for this new behavior to become automatic and a new “habit” that seemed pretty natural. The range was anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The mean number of days varied by the complexity of the habit:

  • Drinking / 59 days
  • Eating / 65 days
  • Exercise / 91 days

Although there are a lot of limitations in this study, it does suggest that it can take a large number of repetitions for a person’s for their new behaviors to become a habit. Therefore, creating new habits requires tremendous self-control to be maintained for a significant period of time before they become more “automatic” and performed without any real self-control. For most people, it takes about 3 months of constant practice before a more complicated new behavior gets “set” in our neural pathways as something we are comfortable with and seemingly automatic.

So, adopting a new physical workout routine or learning to become more participative as a leader might take quite a while with or without coaching to truly become more natural.

Idiot Savants Excel Without Deliberate Practice

Recently, psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues from Princenton University recently conducted the largest review and meta-analysis of studies exploring the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in several domains. Their research is really a great study trying to test the widespread “10,000-hour rule” popularized in a number of books (e.g., Gladwell’s Outliers in 2008; Colvin’s Overrated in 2008).

Their research included 111 independent samples, with 157 effect sizes and a total sample of 11,135 participants5. They explored the deliberate practice and performance relationship in various domains and two sets of factors. The first was based on the predictability of a task or how often the behavior might be expected to be performed (e.g., handling an aviation emergency to running each day). The second factor they looked at was how the previous research was conducted and how practice and performance was actually measured (e.g., recall or log).

Their findings suggest that their claim that the claim that individual differences in performance are largely accounted for by individual differences in amount of deliberate practice is not supported by the available empirical evidence. In fact, Macnamara and colleagues found that the percentage of variance accounted by deliberate practice in five specific domains was:

  • Games 26%
  • Music 21%
  • Sports 18%
  • Education 4%
  • Professions <1%

Some research suggests that deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to explain individual differences in skills6. Across a wide range of piano-playing skill, deliberate practice accounted for nearly half the variance (45.1%) in sight-reading performance in the authors study.

However, working memory capacity (which is highly stable and heritable) accounted for a significant proportion of the variance (7.4%), above and beyond deliberate practice. Working memory is our short term memory which is an ability to remember information over a short period of time.

Their results challenge the view, advocated by Ericsson as well as other researchers, that basic capabilities and skills such as working memory capacity are largely unimportant for expert performance. Although it seems reasonable to predict that anyone who engages in thousands of hours of deliberate practice will develop a high level of skills in any field, it appears that our basic skills and abilities may actually limit the ultimate level of performance that can be attained.

Another study explored the popular 10,000 “rule” by examining associations between musical ability and practice (rs = .18–.36) in 10,500 Swedish twins7.

Together, the current research does indeed suggest that practice doesn’t always make “perfect” if you don’t have the minimal capabilities and the proper mindset to begin with. Surprisingly, associations between music practice and music ability were predominantly genetic, and, contrary to the researcher’s hypothesis, nonshared environmental influences did not contribute.  Genetic influences on hours of practice were substantial, explaining 69% of the variance in males and 41% in females, with additional shared-environmental influences in females (21%). Music abilities were moderately heritable, ranging between 12% and 61% (Ullen, 2014).

Genes and environment are both important for essentially any behavior and practice is no exception. However, there is a strong indication that extreme environmentalist models of performance and expertise (e.g., “practice is everything”) are likely to be just an urban myth ((Plomin, R., Shakeshaft, N. G., McMillan, A., & Trzaskowski, M. (2014). Nature, nurture, and expertise. Intelligence, 45, 46–59)).

So, vary your deliberate practice and just hope you don’t have a genetic intelligence and ability set point that limits just how good you can be. Taken together, these studies don’t’ support the popular wisdom that “leaders are made and not born.”

A lot of researchers and coaches will be watching the human lab animal Dan McLaughlin to see how he does….Be well….

  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. Hölzel, B., et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 []
  3. Tang, Y-Y., et al., (2012). Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207817109 []
  4. Lally, P. et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.10002/ejsp.674 []
  5. Macnamara, B. et al., (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Pyschological Science, 25, 1-11, doi:10.1177/0956797614535810 []
  6. Meinz & Hambrick (2011). Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill: The role of Working Memory Capacity. Psychological Science, 20, 280-285 []
  7. Mosing, M. M., Madison, G., Pedersen, N. L., & Ullen, F. (2014). Practice does not make perfect: No causal rffect of music practice on music ability, Psychological Science, 25, doi: 10.1177/0956797614541990 []

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, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. 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, Talent Management

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