Practice won’t make perfect: Some things are best left to the brain

Richard Farleigh
WANT to be very good at something? The answer, apparently, is to spend 10,000 hours practising and studying. The theory was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his hit book Outliers. He gives The Beatles as an example. They famously went to Hamburg at a young age and by the time they returned, they had done over 10,000 hours of practice – and they went on to greatness.

My own observation is that the theory, or at least the way it is often interpreted, is deeply flawed. It confuses “necessary” with “sufficient”. It may be necessary to invest time to achieve excellence, but there is no guarantee that it will be sufficient. You’ve got to analyse the losers as well as the winners. I’ll bet there are many people who do their 10,000 hours and are still lousy. This crossed my mind not long ago when I sat down to learn the piano. After a few lessons where I tortured the ivories, rather than tinkled them, I’d learned more about my lack of talent than music. According to the theory, we all have roughly the same innate ability and I only need time: I’m about 9,993 hours away from mastery.

The real challenge for most people wanting to excel, however, is diminishing returns. They hit a plateau where they don’t really improve despite their further efforts. I’m half decent at chess and maths, but I reached a level in my early 20s and haven’t really improved since, despite putting in more hours.

Rather than focusing on time, I think it is more important to focus on the brain. To quote a Woody Allen character, it is my second favourite organ. I’m often amazed by the power of the subconscious. For example, can you imagine instructing a child how to walk? “Stand and put one leg out. Put your weight on the back of the heel. Move your body forward and slowly transfer your weight to the balls of your feet.” And so on. It wouldn’t work; a child learns to walk a far better way – through instinct and imitation. They start with a goal in their head, like getting a toy from the other side of the room, and their brains do the rest.

Yet as adults we often adopt a rigid approach – overlearning at the expense of natural ability. On the tennis court, you often see players who have been over-coached. They get some things spot on, but something won’t look right, like their other arm dangling by their side rather than helping them to balance themselves. They are focusing too much on what they have been told to do and not enough on what they want to do. Better players follow their subconscious, which will do things like adjust the racquet by a few degrees to keep the ball in.

So when I’m teaching my children how to play tennis, I try not to over-coach them (I’m not good enough anyway). I start at the net and throw them a few balls. “Try to hit the ball right at me.” Sometimes they are all over the place. But pretty quickly, because they are having fun and are letting their instincts take over, they get more and more accurate. At the same time, their style seems to improve unwittingly.

In business, I try to let my subconscious do some of the work. When I meet someone, I think it’s a bit like a date: you know more or less within five minutes whether it’s going to work out. You can’t always figure out why – again your brain just seems to figure it out in the background. And my favourite organ? My heart of course.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.