Turns out practice doesn't 'make perfect'

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell contains a hypothesis often quoted as fact. Gladwell surmises—and you've heard this before I'm sure—that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice at some task to become an expert.

He uses the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples in the book; the Beatles, he guesses, reached their 10,000 hours fast by playing all-nighters in Hamburg.

But this study by Princeton calls that notion into question. The study contrasts two opposing views of how we might reach expertise, both involving the role of practice in our development.

The first view is that experts are born, but that practice is necessary to reach a high level of performance. You have innate abilities, but your performance would benefit greatly from training.

The second view is that experts are made in practice—this is Gladwell's view—that either innate talent simply doesn't exist or that its effect on performance is overshadowed by the effect of deliberate practice. Your training is everything.

Ultimately, the study finds that deliberate practice doesn't have a profound effect on level of performance at all. It's 'neither, nor.' Experts aren't necessarily those who have practiced 10,000 hours, nor were they born with natural abilities and polished in training.

So how can I become an expert at something then?

The study suggests that perhaps the age at which a person starts serious involvement in a domain has an effect on expertise, that maybe there's an optimal development period to target. An example might be that children from ages 5 to puberty are in a critical period of their development to learn a second language.

The study further supposes that, "General intelligence—which is highly stable and substantially heritable—positively predicts performance in a wide range of domains." The example they give is that of tested pianists, whose working memory capacity enabled them to perform at a higher level in sight-reading tasks than time spent in deliberate practice did.

Ultimately, the study finds that "individual differences in amount of deliberate practice" had very little overall effect on the performance of those tested. The idea that 10,000 hours of practice is required "is not supported by the available empirical evidence."

Does this mean you should stop practicing altogether? Absolutely not. Does it mean you should just give up?—you're past that critical age, you weren't born with it, your memory sucks—so you should just say screw it? Absolutely not.

Practice didn't substantially refine the "naturals" in this study and practice didn't make experts of the unskilled. What that tells me is not that you should stop practicing, but that you should start performing right now—no matter what level of skill you're at.

In his video, "Music As A Language," legendary bassist Victor Wooten says:

"Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it. You were a baby when you first started speaking, and even though you spoke the language incorrectly, you were allowed to make mistakes. And the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled.

Learning to speak was not something you were sent somewhere to do only a few times a week. And the majority of the people you spoke to were not beginners. They were already proficient speakers.

Imagine your parents forcing you to only speak to other babies until you were good enough to speak to them. You'd probably be an adult before you could carry on a proper conversation. To use a music term, as a baby you were allowed to jam with professionals."

Think of growing toward expertise in that way. Practice helps. Repetition helps. Memory helps. General intelligence passed down to you from a happy home helps (my mom used to read to us every night, and I'm convinced that that's why I love reading so much today).

Those things all help to make someone an expert. But getting up on stage, even when you don't know all of the notes, and jamming along with the pro's—that's crucial. We pick it up in the process. Vital to our development is the conversation that takes place in performance with those more proficient than us.

Is there a craft, a hobby, or a creative endeavor that you're keeping hidden from the world right now? Are you locking yourself in a room with that ukulele—never letting a soul hear you play—for fear that you'll be ridiculed? No matter how badly you might suck, it's time to take that craft from the bedroom to the big stage. You won't truly grow until you step out.