I wrote a while back about the concept of deliberate practice, which is basically the idea that if you want to achieve mastery of something you need to (a) practice a lot, and (b) practice well. A study I came across more recently, however, suggests that practice may not be the key to greatness that writers like Malcolm Gladwell have made it out to be.
While there is little doubt that continuous deliberate practice does improve performance, it may still not be enough to enable the leap from good to great. Recent research suggests that the capacity of your working memory – the part of memory that actively process new information as we encounter it – may be a more important factor. Dr. Zach Hambrick, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, says that “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.” Intellectual ability matters, and “the jury’s still out” on exactly how much control we have when it comes to enhancing our natural intellectual abilities.
This may feel like bad news to some learners, but it is important to remember that practice does lead to improvement, regardless of intellectual ability. So, while some may be satisfied with nothing less than greatness, there is much to be said for a life of continuous growth and improvement. Deliberate practice can certainly contribute significantly to that goal.
P.S. – Serendipitously, the day after I published this, the New York Times published an editorial by Zach Hambrick: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters