Practice Will Make You Better, but Maybe Not the Best

A study replicating the basis of the ‘10,000 hour rule’ suggests that factors besides practice hours determine the skills of elite musicians

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In his 2008 book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized what has become known as the 10,000 hour rule. The rule—based on a 1993 study of young violinists and pianists—says that to reach greatness a person needs to dedicate 10,000 hours of practice to an endeavor, or two hours per day for 10 years. Putting in the work was more important than things like innate talent, the study suggested. But in a new study replicating that original research, psychologists came to a different conclusion.

Ian Sample at The Guardian reports that researchers from Case Western Reserve University interviewed three sets of 13 aspiring violinists. One group was rated as the best in their field, another was considered good, and the last group was less accomplished. Musicians were asked to keep a practice log. The team found that those who were rated as less accomplished chalked up about 6,000 hours of practice before the age of 20. However, the violinists rated as good and those rated as the best both averaged about 11,000 hours of practice before age 20.

The conclusion is that extra practice time is essential to taking someone to the elite level. But practice only accounts for about 25 percent of the difference between good and great violinists. Other factors, like talent and genetics also play a part. The research appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“The idea has become really entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification,” study co-author Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University tells Sample. “When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people.”

Practice, she says, is important in reaching the elite level. But at that elite level, the amount of practice a person puts in doesn’t determine who's good and who's the best.

“Even the greatest in the world are not perfect, but to become great, it is likely a number of factors, depending on the task,” McNamara tells Ivan De Luce at Business Insider. “A combination of genetic factors, environmental factors, and their interactions, make us who we are and what we accomplish. This includes what we think of as talent, motivation, practice, and opportunity.”

The 10,000 hour rule has become something of a cultural phenomenon in the last decade as well as a staple in the self-help genre and business world. McNamara tells Business Insider that’s likely because it appeals to concepts already popular in American culture. “I think a lot of people like the idea that with hard work and determination anyone can become an expert at anything,” she says. “It’s very ‘American Dream.’”

But other researchers have also chipped away at the idea that practice makes perfect over the last decade. Research led by Zach Hambrick, director of the Expertise Lab at Michigan State University, indicates that other factors, like working memory, can explain differences in the abilities of musicians, reports Maria Konnikova for the New Yorker. He has also found that practice is more important in certain skills, like games and sports. For other activities, like computer science, being a military pilot and in educational attainment, the impact of practice is tiny.

Genetics, work ethic and environment are also important. Even Malcolm Gladwell has tempered some of the enthusiasm for the 10,000 Hour Rule, which he says has been oversimplified by many outlets and does not apply to sports. Practice can make people much better at a task, but putting in the hours doesn’t ensure they will be the best of the best. During an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit five year ago, Gladwell wrote: “[P]ractice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

Anders Ericsson and Ralf Krampe, two authors of the 1993 study, tell the Guardian that the new research does not overturn their previous work and replicated most of their initial findings. Ericsson points out that there is no objective difference between violinists rated as good and the best violinists in the new study. But there are clear differences between the less accomplished, who practiced less, and the elite levels.

Krampe agrees that the study shows the importance of practice. “Do I believe that practice is everything and that the number of hours alone determine the level reached? No, I don’t,” Krampe says, pointing out that the type of practice, teachers and family support mattered as well. “But I still consider deliberate practice to be by far the most important factor.”

The upshot is, practice can make you better, especially when it comes to things like music or games. But it will probably not make you the greatest of all time, no matter how many hours you run through your scales.