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Does it take more than practice to make perfect?

 Miroslav Klose (L) and Erik Durm celebrate on stage at the German team victory ceremony July 15, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Practice has a significant influence on success in sports.
Miroslav Klose (L) and Erik Durm celebrate on stage at the German team victory ceremony July 15, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Practice has a significant influence on success in sports.
Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

One of the enduring debates in the fore front of the American psyche is nature versus nurture. Over recent years, the pendulum has swung towards the more egalitarian view that nurture is ascendant.

The idea that it takes practice to be perfect is a view that subscribes to our egalitarian sensibilities by advancing the belief that anyone could be exceptional through consistent practice in the domain of their choice. Who can forget Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” of “deliberate practice” to be world-class in any field, or Daniel Coyle’s prescription for unlocking your hidden talent: “certain methods of training, motivation, and coaching”?

If that weren’t enough, you could throw in hope, grit, mindset, and critical-thinking—just to name a few. Amazingly, these prescriptions for success have garnered substantial investments of public dollars from school systems across the nation. According to The Washington Post, Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest school system in Maryland “has paid Gallup $900,000 for three years of work, which includes helping Montgomery survey parents and staff to understand the ‘climate and culture’ at individual schools.” This is not to minimize the district’s investment in Carol Dweck’s mindset paradigm.

Do these tantalizing approaches to setting aflame the talent within you really work?

Consider C.J. Cummings, 14, who, according to The Washington Post is on pace to break one of the longest-standing records in USA weightlifting history. According to the report, Ray Jones, the coach at the weightlifting club insists that “He trains hard and he does all the things I ask him to do, but you really can’t concretely say why he does what he does. He was just given a gift from God to do special things.” His story illustrates the sneaking suspicion everyone has that it takes more than practice to be perfect, or nearly so.

Well, when it comes to practice, a new Princeton study reveals, it made just a 4% difference in education. In one of the most comprehensive meta-analyses to date, the authors compile more than eighty studies in a wide array of fields to conclude that deliberate practice, which they define as “which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain” did explain 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.

However, the success of some cultures in education suggests that deliberate practice can have a larger effect on performance in education when the measure by which success is measured becomes reasonably predictable. A typical example would be when academic success is measured by predictably similar tests.

The authors do not minimize the value of deliberate practice in explaining the individual differences in performance; instead they challenge the size of the effect as popularized in the media. Nor do they subscribe to the view that inherent genetic factors account for an individual’s success in a chosen domain, instead taking refuge in the more palatable conclusion that “Research suggests that general intelligence and more specific abilities may also explain some of the variance in performance that deliberate practice does not.”

If nothing else, the new research militates in favor of the view that success in sports, education, or for that matter any domain, may be achieved through a fortuitous combination many factors. Nature and nurture both play a part, in some mysterious combination, in individual success.