The long, fraught debate over the roots of success—how much is thanks to talent, how much to elbow grease—has a new entry. And partisans of practice might not have the upper hand any longer.
Practice has been aided in recent years by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers, which posited something called the “10,000-hour rule.” The difference between the elite who display mastery of something and those who do not, according to Gladwell, is that the former have spent more than 10,000 hours practicing and the latter have not. Gladwell’s rule is a typically pithy reformulation of the findings of the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who found that deliberate practice accounted for 80 percent of the difference between the very best in a field—whether it’s music or sports or chess or math—and the rest.
A new paper, by Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald, offers a meta-analysis of the existing literature on performance and practice, looking at 88 papers covering all the major realms where the practice-performance link has been studied. It finds that Ericsson (and Gladwell) have greatly overstated the importance of practice. The authors found that, while the amount of time spent practicing is positively correlated with expertise, the effect size isn’t nearly as large as what Ericsson found, and it varied widely in different realms.
Practice time accounted for 26 percent of the variance in performance in games such as chess, 21 percent in music, 18 percent in sports, and less than 1 percent in professions such as law and medicine. The authors also found that the practice effect showed up less in studies where subjects were told to keep a diary of how much they practiced than it did in studies where subjects reported practice times after the fact, presumably a less accurate measure.
The new paper is clearly not going to settle the question. Still, if success is largely a matter of something besides practice, what could that something be? Macnamara et al suggested that it might be, in part, when one begins to learn a skill. Just as children pick up languages much faster than adults, to become truly fluent in chess or math or lacrosse one has to start at a certain age. General intelligence, the authors suggest, and native physical ability may also explain a lot.
That isn’t to say practice doesn’t matter. It just means that all the practice in the world isn’t alone going to turn you into a chess grandmaster or a concert pianist or a golf pro. Hopefully you already knew that.