The Relationship between Practice and Strategy

In the early 1990s, a research psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson, along with two of his associates from Berlin’s Academy of Music, designed a study to compare the differences between the violinists in at the school.[1] They divided the Blog - The relationship between practice and strategy - Josh Nuttallviolinists into three groups. Students in the first group were the stars—the students that would surely go on to do great things. The second group included those students viewed as merely good at playing the violin. The students in the third group were not exceptional players but planned to eventually teach music in the public school system.

Each student was asked one very simple question: From the time you first started to play the violin, how many hours have you practiced? All of the students started playing at about the same age: 5 years old. At that age, each student practiced roughly the same amount of time: two to three hours per week. A few years later, differences started to appear. The best players started to practice more and more as they got older. By age nine: six hours per week. By age twelve: eight hours per week. By age fourteen: sixteen hours per week. By the time these students were twenty years old, they were practicing well over thirty hours per week. Over the years, the elite players had racked up at least 10,000 hours of practice time. The good players practiced about 8,000 hours. And the future music teachers practiced just over 4,000 hours.

Ericsson and his colleagues completed the same study with pianists and very similar statistics emerged. The best pianists practiced at least 10,000 hours before they were considered among the elite group of players. Their research uncovered another fascinating tidbit: not a single prodigy was found among the elite players (the study calls them naturals). Among the two groups with lower ability levels, the researchers did not find any one student that worked harder than everyone else and simply couldn’t cut it (the study calls them grinds). Another fascinating point about this research is that those students that were good enough to be accepted into an elite music school—those students that distinguished themselves above all others—not only worked harder than everyone else, they worked much, much harder than everyone else.

Researchers have found that this 10,000-hour rule seems to be the case for a number of different disciplines.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Now that you have a better idea of the amount of time it will take you to master something—anything really—how much time do you have left to reach that level? One thousand hours? Three thousand hours? Eight thousand hours? Are you starting a completely new venture and feel discouraged by the amount of time it will take to become a true master at it? Guess what: you are not alone. Look around you. There are literally thousands—millions—of people in the same boat as you. But you do have one advantage that they don’t have: you know where you stand compared to the elite status you seek. They most likely don’t. Before you get discouraged, look at your personal strategic plan for the future. How does practice time figure into the equation? Do you need to include more practice time in your strategic plan? Can you cut something else out in order to fit more practice time in? According to Ericsson and his associates, practice time is more important than almost anything else if you would like to reach that elite level you seek.

Start practicing more today. Start practicing more now.

How many hours have you put into becoming an elite _______?


[1] Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), 35-68.

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About the Author

Josh Nuttall

Josh’s role and experience at CMOE has been supporting the development of curriculum design for a wide variety of leadership topics and organizational issues and challenges.