You don’t have to make yourself miserable to be successful. Success isn’t about working hard, it’s about working smart.
When it comes to homework, more is not better.
You’ve probably heard of Outliers (“The Story of Success”), Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 opus, based in part on research by Anders Ericsson. Even if you haven’t read it yourself, it’s probably been quoted to you. It’s the main source of the idea in popular culture that true mastery requires ten thousand hours of practice, which in turn has been used to justify all manner of craziness, including too much homework.
Let’s set the record straight: Gladwell’s book is not the source of the craziness per se. The craziness happened because somewhere between Ericsson’s original research and the reports on Gladwell’s book in the popular press, the proper context and conclusions got lost.
Gladwell (or at least those who reported on his book) popularized the idea that across a wide variety of fields, and especially in cognitively demanding ones, true mastery generally requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of a particular kind of practice.
A common misreading of this observation was the notion that since it’s the magical 10,000 number that determines successful mastery, one should get in as many hours as one can, as soon as one can. Hence, for example, never-ending homework assignments.
This sounds good, but unfortunately it isn’t what the research actually showed.
The right kind of practice is smart.
The research showed that the right kind of practice leads to improvement, and the wrong kind of practice does not.
This is true no matter how much practice you put in. However you define “mastery,” the right kind of practice will
get you there fastest. Furthermore, continued correct practice will continue to improve your skills. (The 10,000 hours number comes from the observation that when you are competing with other people, being the best depends on putting in an enormous quantity of the right kind of practice, because everyone you are competing with will be doing the same.)
Let’s get practical. How do we do this, and what else can we learn here?
The main thing is to stop practicing mindlessly. Believe it or not, practice doesn’t actually make perfect, no matter what people say. Instead, practice simply makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.
So what is perfect practice? It’s a situation that challenges your current ability. So strive at every session to work ever so slightly beyond the highest level you can reach. It’s demanding, frustrating, and often annoying work. Generally, it can’t be done for more than about three hours a day. It is not generally pleasant. But it works.
Make your work better.
So remember: quality, not quantity of practice is the most important factor. Even a hundred hours of quality practice will move the needle. On the other hand, though, you could spend your whole life practicing something by rote and never get any better. (Do you hear me, teachers who assign piles of mindless work?)
Your goal shouldn’t be to do a ton of work, and your teacher’s goal shouldn’t be to pile it on. Instead, the goal should be to make your work better. The better your work, the less of it you will need, and the faster you will progress. Avoid the kind of inefficient work that doesn’t get you closer to mastery.
You don’t need more smarts
Another important lesson here is that although talent matters, it doesn’t matter much. Most of life isn’t actually a “more talent is better” situation. Rather, it’s more like “you must be at least this tall to ride this ride.” Some talent is necessary, but beyond that, more is not appreciably better. “A basketball player only has to be tall enough—and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold,” says Gladwell.
So, do smarts matter? Yes, but not as much as you think. You are already smart enough to be doing what you’re attempting. Believe it or not, being smarter wouldn’t help you all that much.
In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something in the right way for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement. And from there, you can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.
All that matters from now on is how well you learn.