No one is perfect. However, our perceived limitations regarding performance are often self-imposed, so everyone should have the opportunity to improve themselves and their own abilities. When it comes to why some people are more successful than others, two opposing rationales are often used. On the one hand, it is repeatedly argued that luck, innate abilities and existing potential are crucial to individual success. On the other hand, the saying “practice makes perfect” suggests that everyone has the potential to achieve exceptionally high performance. Thus, the question arises whether and, if so, how one can continuously improve one’s own skills and performance potential. This post will look at why different forms of practice vary in effectiveness, why automation can be harmful in some circumstances, and to what extent deliberate practice is a prerequisite for success.
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What characterizes an expert? Answering this question is challenging because expertise is difficult to define or certify. It is therefore not surprising that the assessment of excellence and its underlying mechanisms is also difficult. One widely cited approach is deliberate practice theory, largely coined by the renowned psychologist Karl Anders Ericsson. While Ericsson (2008) acknowledges that experience is often a prerequisite for high levels of performance, he also emphasizes that experience and knowledge alone cannot usually determine realized performance. He argues that automaticity, which is often seen as the goal of a learning process because in this case the cognitive load of execution decreases, is detrimental to individuals as they strive to attain expert status. Automaticity limits further development and individuals should therefore increase the level of demand of their exercises in order to prevent this circumstance. In this case, raising one’s standards will also lead to an increase in one’s performance potential. Ericsson believes that individual potential does not determine one’s performance level, but that individual performance increases one’s potential.¹ It is important to keep in mind that not every domain-specific activity can be considered deliberate practice. In their influential work, Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer (1993) make the following distinction regarding different activities:
“Consider three general types of activities, namely, work, play, and deliberate practice. Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.”²
Following this understanding, deliberate practice is characterized by the explicit striving for improvement, which is not necessarily present in the context of other activities. Deliberate practice is thus an independent activity that is not already integrated into everyday professional or personal life but must be consciously pursued by individuals.
Although the findings of Ericsson and his colleagues have received widespread recognition, the theory is not free of criticism. It is repeatedly pointed out that the assumption that the amount of deliberate practice is the only factor determining performance levels is too simplistic as an explanation and therefore also far removed from reality. Hambrick et al. (2014), for example, conclude in their work that deliberate practice can only explain about one-third of the variance with respect to the performance levels of chess players or musicians. The authors emphasize that, depending on the domain and situation, other factors such as starting age or even general intelligence play a significant role in determining the level of performance.³ Campitelli & Gobet (2011), on the other hand, base their critique on the fact that there should be no exceptions if the theory of Ericsson et al. were realistic. However, they show that reaching the magic number of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, does not guarantee that the person is an expert performer. Conversely, they also show that individuals who may have less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are capable of expert performance. They conclude that the 10,000-hour rule, which has gained popularity in part because of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, represents the average rather than the minimum for achieving expert status.⁴
Of course, there are situations in which it is advantageous to have certain genetic conditions. One example could be competitive sports, as some athletes are able to perform at a higher level due to their physical attributes. However, it can be assumed that these are rather exceptions. In principle, everyone should be able to improve, and innate abilities will probably only make a relevant difference when it comes to absolute peak performances at the international level. At the same time, however, it should be emphasized that the mere fact that a person is practicing something specific does not mean that he or she will necessarily improve. There is a qualitative difference between simply doing something and deliberate practice, which is designed to train and improve specific components. Deliberate practice can be viewed as an approach that provides individuals with a framework and supports them in raising individual performance levels. However, it can be assumed that the path to expert status can only be successfully contested if the acting individual is willing to put in significant effort. Exercises aimed at improving are strenuous and tend to be seen as a necessary evil. It is also important that the level of difficulty is not only continuously raised, but also that clear performance standards are defined in advance so that progress can be measured and assessed. For this reason, it is probably also useful to seek external help from trainers or others who can assist with training management and provide adequate feedback on one’s performance. Such support is likely to provide some structure to the process and increase the likelihood that practice will actually lead to improvement. Unlike the development of automaticity, activities referred to as deliberate practice are not expected to result in performance plateaus forming as a result of their execution. Individuals should be aware, however, that such training of one’s skills will be debilitating, and they will not be able to perform appropriate activities over a long period of time. For this reason, it is advantageous to start deliberate practice as early as possible if the explicit goal is to achieve expert status.
No one is capable of delivering their absolute peak performance without training extensively to do so. It makes no difference whether we are talking about athletes, musicians, decision-makers or people with other functions. Anyone who aspires to achieve the status of an expert in a certain field will have to work for and earn it over a long period of time. Deliberate practice theory provides a suitable approach to guide individuals as they seek to continuously improve their own level of performance. While (effectively) practicing certain skills with the goal of continuous improvement is not yet a guarantee for achieving excellence, it can be assumed to be a necessary prerequisite for reaching expert status. Individuals who want to achieve this goal should be characterized by consistency, show discipline, and accept that this process can only take place over a long period of time. The earlier individuals begin to integrate deliberate practice into their daily lives, the more likely they are to achieve expert status.
¹ Ericsson, K. A. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: a general overview. Academic emergency medicine, 15(11), 988-994.
² Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), p. 368.
³ Hambrick, D. Z., Oswald, F. L., Altmann, E. M., Meinz, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, 34-45.
⁴ Campitelli, G., & Gobet, F. (2011). Deliberate practice: Necessary but not sufficient. Current directions in psychological science, 20(5), 280-285.