Monday Mornings with Madison

Does Practice Make Perfect?

The old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’ conveys the idea that with enough practice a person’s performance can achieve perfection.  Yet, the term ‘perfection’ itself seems to fly in the face of the essence of being ‘human.’  It is universally understood that to be human is to be imperfect.  So if that’s true, just how much can practice improve a person’s performance at any given task or skill?

The issue of ‘practice’ has been examined and re-examined by teachers, industrial psychologists, and coaches the world over.  Does practice make perfect?  It is certainly the question that anyone trying to achieve an exceptional level of success would want to know.  And certainly any business owner or entrepreneur should wonder just how much ‘practice’ do skilled employees need to achieve mastery in their profession.  If practice makes perfect, just how much practice is that?

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In one of his most well-known and influential books, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argued the case that most “exceptional people” (the so-called Outliers) share certain factors that were common to their success… factors that had little or nothing to do with wealth, privilege, or intelligence.  Besides being in the right time, place or culture, another of the primary factors that he said ‘exceptional people’ share is that of practice.   According to Gladwell, it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to truly master a skill.  He dubbed that the 10,000 Hour Rule.  Gladwell said this was true of mastering most any skill, whether it be playing an instrument or programming a computer.

As one of several examples, Gladwell told the story of Bill Gates.  While Gates is probably an intelligent person, he was not a genius nor was he rich or privileged.  According to Gladwell, Gates had other factors going for him.  Gates had unlimited access to some of the earliest mainframe computers at the university where his mother worked.  Because of this, he was able to spend thousands and thousands of hours as a teenager ‘practicing’ how to write computer programs.  It was this unique combination of being in the right place at the right time – with access to computers at a time when few people had access to giant mainframes — along with the concentrated amounts of time he spent programming that allowed Gates to achieve a level of mastery few others in the country had at that time.

Gladwell’s book was full of examples of “outliers” who achieved exceptional success in careers as diverse as law, computers and music.  They all shared several factors in common, not the least of which was 10,000 hours of practice.  He seemed to think that 10,000 hours was the magic number to achieve mastery.

Link Between Practice and Results

Most would agree that there is certainly an undeniable connection between practice and results.  Ask Jack Taylor, a Sophomore student at Grinnell College (in Iowa).  Until two weeks ago, most people – even people who avidly follow college basketball — had probably never heard of Jack Taylor or Grinnell College.  Then, on November 20, 2012, Taylor’s name went into the National College Athletics Association’s (NCAA) record books for being the person to score the most points during a single basketball game in NCAA history.  He scored 138 points.  That wasn’t the overall score of the team.  That is just how many points Taylor scored.  Needless to say, Grinnell College won the game.  The final score was 179-104.

Winning the game wasn’t the impressive part as Grinnell was playing against a much weaker team in the lowest level of college basketball.  It was Taylor’s contribution — blasting the previous record held by Bevo Fancis (1953) of 113 points in a single game – that was noteworthy.  Physically, there is nothing exceptional about Taylor.  He is 5’10” tall and weighs 170 pounds.  He is not exceptionally tall or large, and would not have commanded the court based on his stature.  He is from Black River Falls, Wisconsin, a small Midwestern town.  His all-time best score during a game prior to that record-breaking performance was 48 points during a high school game.  That is good, but not even close to exceptional.  What is interesting about Taylor’s singularly exceptional performance is that he had not done all that well in his previous game.  Because of that, on the two days leading up to the momentous game, Taylor said he worked on his shot more than he had in the past.  He said he took a couple 100 shots before practice.  Taylor had also been playing basketball for at least six years… perhaps even longer… leading up to that game.  That certainly adds up to a lot of practice.  Here is another interesting twist.  Taylor’s performance at the next game a few days later was not nearly as impressive.  He only scored 24 points.  One wonders if all of the media hype and public attention generated after he broke the record interfered with the amount of time he spent practicing prior to the next game.

Indeed, in most sports, professional athletes will spend many hours practicing throughout their career.  In professional football, for example, players will practice four hours a day during the summer and early part of the football season not including time spent working out and more time spent reviewing video tapes of games to identify weaknesses and errors.  During the course of a year, that adds up to about 700 hours of practice plus more time spent on the field playing.  Before even being recruited to a professional team, most players will have already practiced many, many hours on junior varsity, varsity and college teams.  That adds up to thousands of hours.  Indeed, by the beginning of his professional career, the average NFL player will have already spent nearly 10,000 hours practicing.

Quantity and Quality of Practice

It seems clear that the only way to achieve maximum performance potential is to train the body and mind to perform a task over and over… and over.  It stands to reason then that, if practice makes perfect, then work experience is invaluable for most skilled professions.  But how much practice?  How much experience?  Is 10,000 hours the benchmark?  A number of researchers (Bloom, 1985, Hayes, 1989, Simmon & Chase, 1973) have shown it does seem to take about ten years (which averages to about 1000 hours per year) to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas such as games (chess), sports (swimming, tennis), music (composition, piano, violin), arts (painting, glass blowing) and technical careers (neuropsychology, topology, computer programming).  The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but attempting to perform that task at a level beyond the current ability.  Perform.  Analyze the performance during and after.  Correct mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.  As football coach Vince Lombardi put it, “Practice does not make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Indeed, in a world where occupations are increasingly more specialized, it is not enough to have 10,000 hours of general practice.  Specialists need specific practice of a particular skill.  Case in point.  Dr. Robert Sedlack and a research team at the Mayo Clinic sought to determine just how much practice a doctor would need to be considered proficient to perform colonoscopies (an invaluable test used to diagnose gastrointestinal issues).  The field of internal medicine had been recommending for doctors to have performed at least 140 procedures.  However, Dr. Sedlack’s study of 6,600 colonoscopies over a three year period (from 2007-2010) determined that it takes an average of 275 procedures for a gastroenterology fellow to reach minimal cognitive and motor competency.   That is twice as many as had been thought to be sufficient.  Sedlack’s team was able to develop an evaluation system that defined the learning curves and minimal competency benchmarks of when trainees were ready to operate independently.  Clearly more practice was needed than what had long been accepted as the standard for proficiency.  One thing is certain.  No one would want to be a patient on the table being tested by a doctor that had only done 140 colonoscopies when 275 procedures is now known to be the minimum recommended for competence.

Clearly, not only is mastery a must for high-level skills, but accurate diagnostic tools are also needed to determine exactly how much practice is needed to achieve skill mastery.  For highly technical occupations and professions, vast amounts of concentrated and deliberative practice and experience are essential.  Practice does indeed lead to mastery, if not perfection.  And the amount of practice depends on the occupation and area of specialty.  When it comes to hiring staff, it pays to hire the most practiced.

Quote of the Week

“To become an able and successful man in any profession, three things are necessary:  nature, study and practice.” Henry Ward Beecher

© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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