Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Can Practice Overcome a Lack of Talent?

Can deliberate practice make you into a superstar? What can?

Recent books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Talent is Overrated (Colvin) have suggested that deliberate practice – structured practice designed to improve performance in music, sports, games, or a profession – accounts for most of the difference between average and “star performers.” In other words, the main difference between you and Tiger Woods is the thousands of hours he spends in deliberate golf practice. Very recent research suggests that deliberate practice, while important, doesn’t seem to compensate for talent and natural abilities (such as intelligence).

A meta-analysis that will soon be published in the journal, Psychological Science, looked at the effect that deliberate practice had on performance in sports, games, music, education, and professions. The results showed that, across a number of studies, the amount of deliberate practice only explained 12% of the variance in performance. This means that the vast majority of variance in performance is caused by something else.

These results did differ for type of activity, with the highest effect of deliberate practice for games, music, and sports, and almost no effect on educational or professional performance (i.e., being a “star” in a particular profession). These results suggest that talent matters, as well as factors such as intelligence, memory, and other innate qualities.

So, can you simply make yourself into a superstar through focused and deliberate practice? Probably not, unless you have some inherent talent to begin with. On the other hand, practice does indeed help, but not as much as some would have you believe.

 

Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science (online).

 

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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