Deliberate Practice Better Than A lot of Practice

The Guardian recently had a story about a study debunking the idea that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. I have written a number of posts on the subject over the last few years, but feel it is important to revisit it often given our cultural predilection for valuing quantity over quality.

…there was little to separate the good from the best musicians, with each logging an average of about 11,000 hours. In all, the number of hours spent practising accounted for about a quarter of the skills difference across the three groups, according to the study published in Royal Society Open Science.

Macnamara believes practice is less of a driver. “Once you get to the highly skilled groups, practice stops accounting for the difference. Everyone has practised a lot and other factors are at play in determining who goes on to that super-elite level,” she said.

“The factors depend on the skill being learned: in chess it could be intelligence or working memory, in sport it may be how efficiently a person uses oxygen. To complicate matters further, one factor can drive another. A child who enjoys playing the violin, for example, may be happy to practise and be focused on the task because they do not see it as a chore.”

That last bit about the value of enjoyment is really one of the key elements. This is enjoyment in terms of being engaged by the practice, not necessarily being happy about the callouses, aches and frustrating lack of progress. (In fact Nina Simon just posted about a torturous experience whose ridiculous sadism she feels helps her prepare for the adversity life throws at us.)

If your practice is based on pushing yourself to do 5 minutes more than yesterday, then your focus will be on the clock rather than on improving.  The result is that you can play longer, but not that much better.

There is a lot of evidence that variety and deliberate practice helps much more than consistently practicing in the same way. Teaching others a skill is often very valuable to improving your own practice. Even if you don’t feel you are a particularly good teacher or enjoy teaching, the act of teaching any skill at all, even washing dishes, can instill the patience and tolerance of yourself useful for your own practice.

Since we can often be harder on ourselves than others, learning not to obsess about our mistakes might be one of the most valuable assets in practice that no one ever teaches us. A focus on achieving “not wrong” is not equivalent to achieving greater mastery. At a certain point needing to redeem the poor job you did yesterday or deriding yourself for doing better yesterday than today becomes an obstacle rather than path to growth.

As the researchers imply, there can be other factors outside of your control which limit greater mastery. But you never know if that limitation is permanent or a temporary factor associated with your current method of pursuit. Mental healthwise, it may be better to assume the latter and examine alternative approaches.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment