Practice May Not Make Perfect
May 21, 2013

Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

Is “practice makes perfect” an age-old adage to live by or just thinking inside-the-box?

According to University of Michigan associate professor Zachary Hambrick, endless hours spent trying to perfect a skill could be a waste of time.

In a new study published in the journal Intelligence, Hambrick and a team of American researchers suggest that “deliberate practice is not sufficient to explain individual differences in performance” among musicians and chess players.

“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn´t enough,” Hambrick said. “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

In the study, the team reviewed 14 studies involving chess players and musicians and looked explicitly at how practice routine was related to performance. They found that time spent practicing accounted for only about one third of the measurable skill differences in both music and chess.

Hambrick said that the discrepancy can be explained by other factors such as intelligence, innate ability, or age.

One of Hambrick´s previous studies from 2011 found that a person´s working memory capacity could mean the difference between being good and being great. Based on a series of experiments involving participants performing complex tasks such as sight-reading music, Hambrick found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with a lower capacity, regardless of experience with the required task. Working memory is the ability to simultaneously hold and manipulate multiple pieces of transitory information in the mind.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it´s not always sufficient,” Hambrick said after releasing the study in 2011. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

Despite the results of his latest study showing that the old adage “practice makes perfect” may not necessarily be true, Hambrick said the study does have a silver lining.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” he said, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

Other notable figures have been questioning the commonly held belief that hours spent practicing a skill translates into mastering that skill. Author Tim Ferriss has written a series of books based on the principle of “more-is-less” and maximizing personal results using minimal effort. His first book, The 4-Hour Work Week, focuses on wasteful habits in the workplace, while his other books examine efficiency with respect to fitness and quickly learning how to cook at an elite level. Ferris has sold millions of books and travels across the world preaching his principles of efficiency and railing against long-held notions such as “practice makes perfect.”