Does practice really make perfect?

Will more practice help you get a leg up in your career?

There may be truth in the old saying that you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Updated 11 August 2015

“I just can’t get my head around Excel!”*

It’s not an uncommon lament in the workplace. Nor are cries of frustration when someone’s trying to pull together a PowerPoint presentation, write a management report or just stay on top of basic admin – all of which, infuriatingly, somehow seems second nature to everyone else.

“You’ll get used to it,” is the usual response.

But what if you don’t, no matter how hard you try? After all, practice makes perfect, right?

Scientists have been studying whether experts are born or made since the mid-1800s, and in 2008 Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, coined the “10,000-hour rule”, being the amount of practice he said would deliver success in any field.

But if that is the case, why do so few people in careers such as law, medicine, sports or music ever reach an exemplary level of performance?

That is a question asked by Fred Oswald, professor and chair of psychology at Rice University in the US and co-author of a study into the benefits practice can have on your day-to-day professional responsibilities, as well as other pursuits such as education, music, games and sports.

Learn more: Further training on Microsoft Excel for finance professionals

It is, according to the study’s title, a “meta-analysis”, which means the researchers from Rice, Princeton University and Michigan State University reviewed 88 previous studies that investigated the impact an individual’s practice had on their performance in different domains. In total, the selected studies had a sample size of 11,135 participants.

The good news is that if you like playing games like Scrabble or chess, practice can improve your performance by 26 per cent.

"The view that essentially anyone can do essentially anything is not scientifically defensible." – David Lubinski, Vanderbilt University

On the down side, it only accounts for about 4 per cent of individual differences in education, such as an undergraduate psychology course, and – alarmingly – less than 1 per cent in professions.

Brooke Macnamara, a psychological scientist who headed the study at Princeton, says the importance of innate ability has been underplayed since Gladwell’s claim that deliberate practice – activities designed with the goal of improving performance – is the key to unqualified success.

The new analysis shows that the amount of practice accumulated over time does not, in fact, play a huge role in improving performance after all. Indeed, across all the fields studied, it was found to average only a 12 per cent lift in individual skill levels.

“Deliberate practice is unquestionably important, but not nearly as important as proponents of the view have claimed,” Macnamara says.

Unfortunately for older workers, she and her colleagues speculate that the age at which a person becomes involved in an activity may matter. So, if you’re contemplating a career change later in life, the cards could well be stacked against you.

David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who has studied talent identification and development, says the research highlights the importance of accounting for ability, commitment and opportunity to explain individual differences in human performance.

“The view that essentially anyone can do essentially anything is not scientifically defensible,” Lubinski says.

So, back to the drawing board.

*If you really want to get your head around Excel, check out these how-to Excel resources.

Further reading