Blood, Sweat, and Tears, or, Hard Work Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be


practice  One of my freshman essays in the fall of 1959 at Davidson College treated the theme that I    dubbed “E for Effort.” Based on my elementary school grading whereby E was for Excellent, S  for Satisfactory, and U for Unsatisfactory, I praised the ethic of hard work by concluding    that, if one went all out on an assignment, then they should get an E for Effort. My English  professor, William P. Cumming—an Oxford-trained polymath—would have none of it. “Howard,” he asserted, “hard work without know-how can ruin the finest garden.” Deflation ensued. For the next 55 years, the public debate on the relative importance of talent and practice has been enmeshed with my personal identity.

When I first read in the 1990s Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice and later saw it popularized by Malcolm Gladwell as the 10,000 hour rule, it sounded as though the debate was over—engage in deliberate practice (not just playing the same scale over and over again in the same way, but introducing variation and difficulties by playing slower, faster, louder, softer, with arms crossed, blindfolded, with food in my mouth, with another person, with loud noise in the background, and so on) for six hours a day for ten years and you’ll achieve expert status. This finding made extensive practice—not just “deliberate” practice—a cause célèbre for the Tiger Moms and Dads of the world. In a sense, Ericcson’s research was the nail in the coffin for Hitler’s (and others’) elitist (and racist) programs of eugenics and the inborn nature of talent and ability. People affirmed star status as the primary democratic ideal—everyone can be a star (or an expert, whichever emphasis you prefer) with (deliberate) practice.

Then on July 1 of this year (2015), the other shoe dropped. Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald (of Princeton, Michigan State, and Yale, respectively) published the results of their meta-analysis of research on the effects of deliberate practice on performance. Based on 150+ studies and 11,000+ subjects that spanned five performance areas (sports, games, music, education, and the professions), the researchers concluded:

  • The amount of deliberate practice showed minimal association with education (about 1 academic out of 25 appears to benefit from the Ericcson rule) and the professions (fewer than 1 lawyer, doctor, etc., out of a 100 benefits).
  • The amount of deliberate practice appeared to benefit about 1 in 5 athletes, musicians, and gamers (with slightly more influence on musicians, slightly less on athletes).
    • Inference: Deliberate practice has greater influence on the performance of physical skills than on mental skills, but the combination of other factors has greater influence.

The authors offered a series of related analyses that identified exceptions to these relationships, but the exceptions were all associated with diminished association. For example, the more rigorous the performance measure (e.g., a standardized, objective measure) used in a study, the lower the association, while the more lenient the performance measure (e.g., election to a fraternity or sorority) used in a study, the higher the association. In other words, the more rigorous the study, the weaker the association.

So what is our takeaway from this meta-analysis? Yes, deliberate practice is important, but it is not everything. For those desirous of achieving expertise, we also need to take into consideration:

  • Their relevant native mental abilities (such as short term memory, ideational fluency, and so forth)
  • Their physical characteristics (such as eye-hand coordination, audio acuity, reaction speed, depth perception, and so forth)
  • Their relevant personality traits (such as spontaneity vs. methodicalness, concentration vs. distractibility, comfort being alone vs. comfort being around others, and so forth)
  • Their relevant values (such as Achievement, Relationships, and so forth)
  • Their relevant experiences (such as Boy/Girl Scout experience, military experience, time spent on related skills, such as ten years on piano before beginning violin, and so forth)
  • The nature of their home environment (such as support for and relatives’ expertise available in their chosen skill)
  • The quality of their instructors, coaches, mentors, or other learning/training guides
  • The availability of challenging role models and competitors
  • And, of course, the luck of the draw!

In short, we humans are complex critters, and no single factor can account for our failures or successes.

 Note: “Deliberate” practice is not the same thing as “abundant” practice. I find it hard to believe that the researchers were able to determine whether or not the studies they reviewed were able to winnow out the subjects who simply reported on the number of hours they practiced doing the same old protocol repeatedly, or whether they genuinely engaged daily in “deliberate” practice by varying and shaking up their regimens. We can only wonder whether the associations might be stronger if we were reliably limited to subjects who ONLY engaged in “deliberate” practice.


One thought on “Blood, Sweat, and Tears, or, Hard Work Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Add yours

  1. Nice article, Pierce. I enjoy the rigor in your presentation of the research. I get pretty tired of the lack of that in the general blogging public, including almost all journalists. People just shop for ideas that appeal to them for whatever reason, that help them fit better into their social environment, reinforce their preexisting world view, etc. and then freely apply the worst logical fallacies to highly questionable or completely bogus sources in pitiful attempts to justify whatever they’ve so arbitrarily decided to believe.

    Your inferences at the end are razor sharp and concur fully with my experience as a musician and teacher with a substantial scientific and technical background. Cognitive skills are much more dependent on the quality of instruction, deliberate practice, native ability, and personal inspiration than on the quantity of deliberate practice. I find it interesting that even so, physical skills are still more highly correlated to whatever remaining factors there are than to deliberate practice taken alone.

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