Improving Academic Performance

The Underestimated Power of Practice

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Fri, Feb 14, 2014 @ 05:30 PM

shutterstock 63546325 resized 600We have all come across genius, people who are exceptional, admirable, and undeniably perfect.  Some have graced our history books and televisions many times over (Einstein, Mozart, Jordan), while others are our neighbors or friends who are just awesome at something - imagine that girl or boy wonder in your AP Physics or English class that seems to immediately understand absolutely everything the teacher says and ace every test. 

But we may be looking at them and ourselves the entirely wrong way.   What if what it took to become an expert or a genius was a different kind of work (hard work done smartly) for many hours behind the scenes that we just don’t see?  What if the only thing stopping us from being great is a misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence, talent, and performance?   What if even in highly academic disciplines, it wasn’t IQ or natural ability that explained “genius?”

There is an idea, a new but highly researched and supported idea, discussed in a variety of books on talent and intelligence, that it is not natural talent and ability, but a specific time of practice, that explains how people become experts and geniuses.   There are two bestselling books on this topic that have greatly influenced this article: Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

Both sources strive to change the public’s view of world-class talents versus themselves.  We’re not all that fundamentally different.  Some of us just work really hard, in a really specific way, at improving our skills.  We won’t go into the details in this article, but the research supporting these points shows that the right type of practice literally builds a substance in our brains that is positively correlated with being good at something, and which has been shown to increase over time with practice.  This is revolutionary stuff.

Let’s look at a few examples before we delve into the idea that genetics isn’t the only thing that plays into genius – especially when evaluating it in the context of standardized test taking and generally performing well in school.

Skinny and much shorter than he is now, Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity team his sophomore year of high school.  Right before his junior year, he grew to NBA height and was quickly on his way to stardom.  But what else happened in that year?  Did he embark on a career filled with hours of dedicated practice, drills, and exercises?  Definitely.  But that’s not the only story.  Perhaps inspired by not making that varsity team, he practiced in an incredibly focused way - striving to perfect his shooting form, improve his moves, and become more explosive.  He didn’t just practice a lot, he practiced the right way

Michael Jordan once said, and I’m paraphrasing, if you take 1,000 shots with imperfect form, you’ll become very good at shooting the wrong way.  He intuitively understood that the right type of practice involves focusing on getting the fundamentals exactly right, going slow, getting input from experts, identifying errors, understanding them, and fixing them immediately, and more.

You’ve heard of Mozart, the creative genius that defined classical and romantic period music composition?  We all have.  What you may not have heard of is his early beginnings as a musician.  He was born into a family well versed in music and was writing pieces with help from his parents at the tender age of 5.  By the time he was in his teenage years, he was creating masterpieces.  But, along the way, he composed some pretty average, or below average, pieces of music.  To be creating works of “genius” in your teenage years is still extraordinary, of course. But when you take into account the fact that he had had daily instruction and practice in the art of composition from the day he could walk, it is a much different story than the miraculous pre-teen that writes world class music.

 Lady Gaga was denied countless times by record companies and agents before she landed her first radio debut.  Award-winning actors struggle for years without any recognition.  Steve Jobs’s first computer making venture was a disaster.   Even consider your own high school valedictorian or AP Physics prodigy.  These people may have genes which, if you could identify whatever genes lead to our best notion of intelligence, are set up well.  But, that doesn’t really do anyone any good without lots of the right type of practice.  But what made them great was practice, and practice done the most effective way.  It’s a term called ‘deep practice’, hard work done in a focused and inspired manner that makes all the difference.   That’s what Michael Jordan, Mozart, and Lady Gaga are doing when they practice.

Take high school or college level math as an example.  A student won’t gain much from doing every problem again and again and then reviewing the answers.  The student must learn to do the problems correctly.  If you actively embrace your mistakes, think about them, and learn from them you will get the most information and growth out of them in order to make positive progress.   What does this mean, exactly?  It means do a few problems.  Stop. Check the answer.  If you got something wrong, identify why.  Try the problem again.  Then move on.  

This is also true when preparing for standardized tests.  ‘Deep practice’ will inevitably improve performance.  Although it may seem easier said than done, it is possible with constant attention to observing mistakes and evaluating how they happened and how to fix them.  The very worst thing you can do is ignore mistakes and call them “silly” – as we so often like to do - and forge onto the next math problem.

The next time you’re sitting in AP Physics, Organic Chemistry, 18th Century Literature, or trying to improve your GMAT score, and you’re eyeing the gifted student in class with envy, realize that it probably took countless hours of focused practice and revision to get to where they are. It looks easy for him or her, but it probably isn’t.  You don’t often see the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a “genius.”  But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that it didn’t happen.  Chances are, with hours of ‘deep practice’, studying done the right way and with the right attitude, you can become just as brilliant as the valedictorian.