Why ‘practice makes perfect’ is BS

practice makes perfect

We’ve all heard it before. Many times. The phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. The notion that if you practice something enough, you will eventually be able to do it perfectly. Become an expert, a genius, a star. What BS.

Since the mid-1500s, iterations of the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ have been uttered by all sorts of people, some famous, others not so, but always consistent over time. Today, parents, guardians, coaches, bosses, colleagues and the like continue to breathe life into this long-standing idiom.

Is it even true? If not, why do we keep using it, especially as grounds for advice to our kids?

Origins and Psychology

The idiom was adopted into the English language initially from the Latin phrase ‘uses promptos facit’ (use makes perfect). It was adapted by iteration over time. The idea that practice and habit led to excellence was not a new one. Aristotle expressed the view that “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation…We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Psychologists have been interested in how people become experts in various disciplines for as long as psychology has been a field,[1] albeit researchers have expressed differing opinions about the reasons why some become exceptional, and others do not. These reasons have ranged from a ‘life-long period of a deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain’[2], “10,000 hours of deliberate practice”[3], “practising more intensively than others” [4] to ‘innate characteristics’[5] , heritable ability[6] and intelligence[7].

Experts and elite performers are born, not made

Sir Francis Galton (1869) acknowledged that scientists, musicians, writers, poets, painters, athletes, and other “men” (let’s now say, people) of “eminence” possessed “an adequate power of doing a great deal of very laborious work”[8] (akin to practice). Despite this observation, Galton then went onto conclude that “genius” was the product of innate ability, not training. The notion that an expert is born, not made.  These findings were not that surprising given that the study focused on a family of relatively well-known musicians called Bach (from the lineage of the distinguished composer, Johann Sebastian Bach).  According to the research, there were at least 20 others from the family gene pool with the same innate abilities. By analogy, there are a plethora of examples of sporting ‘families’ which have consistently produced elite performing athletes such the Ella brothers[9], Martins[10], Chappell brothers[11], the Danihers[12], the Campbell sisters[13] and the Barrett brothers[14], just to name a few.

Experts are made, not born

While the findings of Galton (1869) continue to receive significant support in modern research,[15] there are some notable exceptions; the proponents of the dichotomous theory that an expert is made, not born.  For example, Watson (1930) wrote:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-informed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents.[16]

More recently, Ericsson (1993)[17], siding with Watson, proposed that expert performance reflects a long period of deliberate practice, a particular kind of motivated, focused training, rather than innate ability, or talent. In 2007, the same researcher argued that “it is possible to account for the development of elite performance among healthy children without recourse to unique talent (genetic endowment) – excepting the innate determinants of body size”[18]. After that, the researcher was at pains to impose the caveat that the “only innate differences that turn out to be significant – and they matter primarily in sports – are height and body size”[19] (emphasis added).  

A concession, nonetheless.

Experts and elite performers are born, then made – a logical compromise

“[H]eritable ability, and particularly intelligence, is a necessary component to acquiring expertise in nearly every domain” according to most modern researchers[20].  These researchers mostly follow the reasoning of Galton with some additions and modifications. Genetic and environmental factors are relevant[21]. It may be a combination of these which contributes to elite performance[22]. The notion that experts are born then made[23]. Physical limitations, injuries, poor early experience, and ageing could also constrain expertise development[24] which involves a mixture of abilities, environment, practice, and motivation[25].

Further, this body of research at least acknowledges that it is “unfair to the less able to claim that with sufficient hard work, they can accomplish what those more gifted achieve.[26]”  Practice, deliberate or otherwise, is not the sole determinant of expert performance regardless of any caveats for sporting endeavours. Comprehensive approaches, including consideration of deliberate practice, cognitive abilities, and dispositional traits, has been proposed[27]. Genetic and environmental factors are likely to influence these values[28].

Common sense must be here somewhere

Despite the research on both sides, common sense, measured in practical reality, must endure over academic research to the contrary. Academic research is a slow and methodical process, often reflecting findings surpassed by the time it takes to publish. Common sense, however, is always contemporary (or at least it is reasonable to assume so).

Common sense intuition contradicts the underlying message of the phrase, that is, that anybody can be good at anything, by recognising that not everyone can do everything to the same high level of proficiency. Abilities limit people[29].  You may have heard various iterations of the modern expression “Don’t let your ambitions get mixed up with your abilities” – used when someone is trying to pass themselves off to a higher standard than is naturally bestowed or currently possessed. All this does is reflect the fact we are all, by nature and nurture, going to be different. Some of us are tall, others short. In rugby parlance, some people are built for the scrum, and others are better suited to the backline. It’s just how it is. The idea that, with 10,000 hours of practice, a half-back could become expert in the art of scrummaging ignores the fact that he or she may not have the capacity for it. Not every person will be an expert lawyer, doctor, artist, and so on. These are pursuits of those with the intellect and creativity for it, not just those that practice. That someone could pick one of us at random, and make us a genius, or provide us with some supreme powers that we do not otherwise possess like Jim Carrey’s character, Bruce Nolan, in the movie, Bruce Almighty, is illogical.

If practice did make people perfect at music, the arts, science, games, sports and professions, we would have a world full of exceptional people.  No doubt, there are a plethora of examples in our world of elite sportspeople, scientists, artists, gamers, lawyers, doctors, and so on that fall into this category. The reality though is that these people are the exception, not the rule. Many countless others have sought to ‘practice more intensively than others, not only for success in any line but even for genius’[30] and not performed to the same level. Logical? Absolutely.

Practice, while critical, will not make you perfect. It will not of itself make you a star tennis player, an expert lawyer, a specialist doctor, a professional gamer, or whatever other high eminences you are seeking. That’s the reality. Vince Lombardi[31], one of the greatest sports coaches of all time, got it right when he recoined the phrase to ‘Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.’ To that, we should just add, ‘And sometimes people just have an innate ability, inherited genes or conducive environment to achieve perfection in their respective discipline.’  After all, it is logical that you can only engage in perfect practice if you first possess the ability to do so. If you don’t have the innate skills to perform it, practice can’t make perfect. In the words of Bruce (the “Almighty”) Nolan, “And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

BS prevails

As a parent, I confess that I have regurgitated and imparted to my kids the so-called wisdom of the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. Hopefully, they didn’t listen and now read this article. Despite the words being deeply etched in history, it does not necessarily make it right. Humans have changed their views regarding many things over time, whether by discovery, scientific deliberation or public opinion. There is no reason why this phrase and others like it ought not to be under scrutiny in 2020. The expression and the underlying advice that comes with it has been around since the 1500s. It was BS then, and it continues to be so. Why don’t we just consign it to history and stop lying to our kids and each other?  It’s counter-productive, unfair, misleading and just plain wrong.

© 2020. Robert Nicholls. All Rights Reserved.

Featured image: Shutterstock


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Notes

[1] Hambrick, D.Z. et al (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, pp.34-45.

[2] Ericsson et al (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, pp.363-406.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Watson, J.B (1930). Behaviourism. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p.212.

[5] Sir Francis Galton (1869). Hereditary genius. London: Macmillan. See also Ruthsatz, J. et al (2014). Putting practice into perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent. Intelligence, 45, pp.60-65.

[6] Ibid. See also Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17; Plomin, R. et al (2014). Nature, nurture, and expertise: Response to Ericsson, Intelligence, 45, 115-117.

[7] For example, Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17; Detterman, D.K. (2014). Introduction to the intelligence special issue on the development of expertise: is ability necessary? Intelligence, 45, p.3; Hambrick, D.Z. et al (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, pp.34-45; de Bruin et al (2014). Practice, intelligence, and enjoyment in novice chess players: A prospective study at the earliest stage of a chess career. Intelligence, 45, pp.18.25; Grabner, R.H. (2014). The role of intelligence for performance in the prototypical expertise domain of chess, Intelligence, 45, pp.26-33.

[8] Sir Francis Galton (1869). Hereditary genius. London: Macmillan, p.37.

[9] Mark, Glen and Gary in Australian rugby union in 1970’s and 1980’s.

[10] Michelle, Rodney and Brett in Australian squash.

[11] Ian, Greg and Trevor in Australian cricket.

[12] Terry, Neale, Anthony and Chris in Australian Football League (AFL).

[13] Cate and Bronte in Australian swimming.

[14]  Beauden, Jordie and Scott in New Zealand Rugby Union.

[15]  Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17; Detterman, D.K. (2014). Introduction to the intelligence special issue on the development of expertise: is ability necessary? Intelligence, 45, p.3; Hambrick, D.Z. et al (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, pp.34-45; de Bruin et al (2014). Practice, intelligence, and enjoyment in novice chess players: A prospective study at the earliest stage of a chess career. Intelligence, 45, pp.18.25; Grabner, R.H. (2014). The role of intelligence for performance in the prototypical expertise domain of chess, Intelligence, 45, pp.26-33; Simonton, K.S. (2014). Creative performance, expertise acquisition, individual differences, and developmental antecedents: An integrative research agenda. Intelligence, 45, pp.66-73; Ruthsatz, J. et al (2014). Putting practice into perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent. Intelligence, 45, pp.60-65; Wai, J. (2014). Experts are born, the made: Combining prospective and retrospective longitudinal data shows that cognitive ability matters. Intelligence, 45, pp.74-80.

[16] Watson, J.B (1930). Behaviourism. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p.104.

[17] Ericsson et al (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, pp.363-406.

[18] Ericsson. K.A. (2007). Deliberate practice and the modifiability of body and mind: Toward a science of the structure and acquisition of expert and elite performance. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 38, pp.4-34 at p.4; see also Ercisson et al (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, 85, pp.114-121 at 116. 

[19] Ibid.

[20] See Footnote 15.

[21] Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17

[22] Ibid.

[23] Wai, J. (2014). Experts are born, the made: Combining prospective and retrospective longitudinal data shows that cognitive ability matters. Intelligence, 45, pp.74-80.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17

[26] Detterman, D.K. (2014). Introduction to the intelligence special issue on the development of expertise: is ability necessary? Intelligence, 45, p.2.

[27] Simonton, K.S. (2014). Creative performance, expertise acquisition, individual differences, and developmental antecedents: An integrative research agenda. Intelligence, 45, pp.66-73.

[28] Ibid. See also Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17.

[29] Ibid, pp.1-2. See also Ackerman, P.L (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance. Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, pp.6-17; Hambrick, D.Z. et al (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, pp.34-45.

[30] Watson, J.B (1930). Behaviourism. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p.212.

[31] Vincent Thomas Lombardi (11 June 1913 to 3 September 1970) was an American football coach and executive in the National Football League (NFL) with an impeccable coaching record. For more information go to vincelombardi.com.

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