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Sure, Practice Makes Perfect--But It Isn't Enough

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell we all know you need to put in the hours to attain mastery, but practice and grit are only part of the equation. You also need this secret ingredient.

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Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller Outliers, pretty much everyone has heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice or more to make a master. He’s since pointed out that the popular understanding of this maxim is generally oversimplified, but that doesn’t undermine the essence of the argument -- sustained effort over time is a hallmark of greatness.

But it’s not enough.

And no, the mystery ingredient isn’t talent, though certainly that’s part of the recipe. Of course, innate aptitude plays a big role in what any one of us can achieve (for instance, I could practice all day, every day for the next 100 years and never become an opera singer -- 'Happy Birthday' might even remain a challenge). According to psychological research, what’s the essential counterpoint to all that required intense practice? Surprise! It's rest.

If you think super high achievers are running around like maniacs all day and sleeping five hours a night, you couldn’t be further from the truth, reports UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center which studies positive psychology and recently laid out the relevant science:

In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance... found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session.

So it isn’t just that elite performers work more than others; they rest more, as well. The top violinists mentioned above slept an hour a night more than their less-accomplished classmates. They were also far more likely to take a nap between practice sessions-;nearly three hours of napping a week.

Super-high-achievers sleep significantly more than the average American. 

The complete article includes much more on the science of rest and performance, so check it out if you're interested in more details, but its conclusion is the kind of thing many hard-charging small business owners could probably benefit from sticking on a Post-It note and pondering regularly: "Being gritty isn’t just about pushing yourself 24/7 toward your goals, in both good and bad weather. It’s about making progress toward your goals consistently and deliberately, in a way that works with our human biology, allowing for proper refueling and consolidation of knowledge." 

So go ahead, take that nap, leave the office at 5:30 and give yourself permission not to be crazy busy for awhile.

Are you resting enough to be your most successful self? 

IMAGE: Shutterstock/Everett Collection
Last updated: Oct 10, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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