Becoming a Superstar: It’s Not All About Practice

10,000 hours may not be enough

Posted Jun 05, 2013

They say that practice makes perfect. Or, more specifically, that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary to obtain elite performance levels in activities ranging from golf to chess to music. Coined by Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, the 10,000 hour rule reflects the idea that becoming a world-class athlete or performer rests on a long period of hard work rather than “innate ability” or talent. You don’t need to be born with the “right” genes to be a super star, says Ericsson, you just have to practice in the “right” way.

Is it true? Is practice all it takes to achieve exceptional performance levels? Of course, the debate over whether stars are “born” or “made” has been going on since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. In the beginning there was Plato, who argued that we come into this world with biologically endowed abilities and skills and that our highest levels of success are predetermined by the heavens. On the other side of the debate was Aristotle, who just happened to be Plato’s student, and who adamantly believed that success was gained through learning and training. Several modern-day researchers like Anders Ericsson take Aristotle’s side, but not everyone does. And, in a paper recently published in the journal Intelligence, psychologists Zach Hambrick, Fred Oswald and colleagues, provide some pretty compelling evidence that there is more to expert performance than practice.

Hambrick and colleagues set out to answer a simple question. Is deliberate practice – that is, practice specifically designed to improve one’s skill – all it takes to become an expert? To answer the question, the research team reanalyzed data from studies on musical and chess expertise. For example, in chess, the research team looked at how reports of deliberate practice throughout one’s lifetime (ranging from one-one-one instruction to studying the game alone) related to a player’s World Chess Federation Ratings and, in music, the researchers looked at how reported practice amounts related to ratings of piano performances.

So, what did they find? Hard work does help explain who will reach the highest levels of performance in music and chess alike. But, it’s not the entire story. In fact, in both areas, deliberate practice wasn’t even half the story – it was about 1/3 of it. Some people require much less practice than others to reach elite performance levels. In other words, it seems that factors other than practice are important for determining who is going to obtain the highest level of skill.

I have to admit, the 10,000 hour rule is an appealing one. It implies that almost anyone can become an expert if they work hard enough. As Hambrick says, deliberate practice is so popular because it has “meritocratic appeal.”  The data, however, tell a somewhat different story. Yes, hard work is extremely important, but it’s not everything. Whether it’s genes, motivation, one’s ability to handle failure, all of the above or something else altogether, we have to owe up to the fact that factors other than practice contribute to achieving greatness. Only then will we be best able to identify areas we are most likely to excel in and have the best chance of rising to the top.

For more on exceptional performance, check out my book “Choke.

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Hambrick, D. Z., et al. (in press). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence.

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