When I was younger, my mother sat down with me as I threw a tantrum in protest of practicing the piano. “I hate the piano,” I groaned. “I’m not good at it.” In response, my mother spoke three magic words. “Practice makes perfect.” Unfortunately, me being a stubborn seven-year-old and all, the advice didn’t take. I haven’t touched a piano in years. However, science has proven her sage words right. To become an expert in anything, you need to practice. In fact, practice is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Practice makes perfect, but it still isn’t enough
Author Malcolm Gladwell once asserted that you need 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ to become world-class in any field. In his book ‘Outliers’, he claimed that the 10,000-hour rule was how the Beatles became so famous, and how Bill Gates became the richest man, like, ever.
Endless hours of rehearsal and endless hours of bashing out code were apparently the secrets to their success. Not only that, but to really nail the principle of ‘deliberate practice’, you need to be consciously pushing the borders of your ability at that skill. So – you can’t just practice; you have to practice with the aim of improvement.
Sounds about right, you might think. However, it’s our duty at Debut to break the bad news, no matter how much it hurts. Deliberate practice doesn’t make that much of a difference. It does account for something – a meta-analysis by psychologist Brooke Macnamara found that deliberate practice accounts for an 18 per cent difference in the mastery of a skill.
18 per cent seems like a number you can shout from the rooftops about. The downside? This only applies to anyone who wants to move from an ‘average’ level to a ‘good’ level of mastery. Her study found that in order for you to move from ‘good’ to ‘great’, deliberate practice only accounts for a 1% change.
Alright then, how do I really become an expert in anything?
Here’s the lowdown according to journal Nature Neuroscience. According to them, the most effective strategy to becoming an expert in anything is to practice something called ‘over-learning’.
There’s no hidden trick to this, apparently. Over-learning is as straightforward as it says on the tin: you have to study or practice the thing until you fully understand the thing. Then you practice some more.
This is how they figured it out. During the study, researchers observed 60 volunteers during a visual-recognition task, and asked them to study a series of images to identify the pattern. To succeed in the task, the volunteers had to suss out which groups of pictures had patterns, and which pictures didn’t. On average, it took eight rounds of practice to nail this.
During the second stage of the study, the researchers brought in a new batch of participants to do the same task. This time, they divided them into two groups. The first group practice for the standard eight rounds, took a break, then practiced for another eight. The second group did a whopping 16 rounds – double the amount they needed, took a break, and did eight more. Whoa.
They called them back in the next day to repeat the same tasks. The first group did worse in their first session but better in the second. The second group? They maintained consistency in the latter session and did significantly better in the first one, (the one they’d over-learned for).
How will over-learning turn you into an expert?
The results seem legit and all, but if you’re looking for the ~science~ behind it all, here’s what the study said. The study authors concluded that over-learning helps to cement information in your head. It also helps to block other information from coming along and replacing the thing you’ve been working hard to learn.
Here’s why this is important: when you’re learning something new, the information that goes into your head is particularly vulnerable. Anything can come and knock that precious info straight outta your noggin. The study puts it this way:
“Usually, learning immediately after training is so unstable that it can be disrupted by subsequent new learning until after passive stabilization occurs hours later.”
Looks like there are no shortcuts to greatness after all. Oh well.