Malcolm Gladwell has an impressive talent for popularizing sticky terms. After he publishes a book suddenly everyone can't stop talking about 'tipping points' or discussing the '10,000-hour rule.' But according to one of the researchers behind the science of that last idea, Gladwell sometimes sacrifices accuracy for clarity.

"Malcolm Gladwell read our work, and he misinterpreted some of our findings," Florida State professor and author Anders Ericsson recently told Knowledge@Wharton. So what was wrong with Gladwell's telling of the science?

Two things. First, 10,000 hours was just an average. Across the gifted violinists Ericsson and his colleagues studied to come up with that figure, "there was a fair amount of variability," he says. Some attained greatness after much less practice. Some needed more.

But the larger problem, according to Ericsson, is the impression some readers got from Gladwell's book that simply racking up huge numbers of hours in practice was all important. "It's not just a matter of accumulating hours. If you're doing your job, and you're just doing more and more of the same, you're not actually going to get better," he explains.

You need the right kind of practice.

Any old practice isn't enough. You need the right kind of practice, Ericsson insists over the course of the fascinating interview. Going over and over the same material is unlikely to make you better at whatever it is you are trying to master. The key is to continually challenge yourself, and for that, a good teacher is hugely useful.

"Just working harder or working more does not seem to be associated with high levels of performance. Rather, if you're working with a teacher or a mentor who has attained this high level of performance, that individual can help you now design the kind of training activities that they may have engaged in in order to reach that higher level of performance," Ericsson says.

Ericsson and his team term the most effective form of practice, 'deliberate practice.' It involves honing in on an important subset of a skill you are trying to master and repeatedly working on that through intelligent feedback. They insist this approach works in a variety of domains, from doctors looking to improve patient outcomes and students studying physics to weekend golfers bent on bettering their game.

Even just perfecting your golf swing this way can have benefits at the office as well as on the green, Ericsson points out. "If you help somebody get very good within a domain, they actually learn a lot about effective learning," he points it. (This is yet another reason to celebrate those professionals who make time to passionately pursue a hobby.)

Learn how to learn.

Check out the full interview for lots more insight on what exactly most people misunderstand about effective practice. Or, if you're in the market for more research-validated suggestions to speed up your learning, there are lots of Inc.com articles available on the science of acquiring new skills faster.

Are you too focused on the quantity, rather than the quality, of your practice?

Published on: Jun 23, 2016
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