Practice Not So Perfect

Practice makes perfect when it comes to developing talent. And the earlier you start the better.

Not so fast. What coaches, teachers and parents have been telling us for years is all wrong. Practicing early and often, at least in sports, may just be a first-class ticket to second place.

In “The Sports Gene,” author and journalist David Epstein compared the development of elite athletes with the also-rans and found that while elites put in the thousands of hours of practice required to develop and hone expertise, they actually put in less hours at a young age in their chosen sport than their less-successful competitors.

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom that you have to pick a discipline early and then practice, practice, practice. Rather, what Epstein found was that those elite athletes engage in what researchers call a ‘sampling period’—an extended stretch of timebefore the age of 12 when they develop their athletic potential by playing multiple sports.

He cites Bahamian high jumper Donald Thomas, a basketball player at Lindenwood University near St. Louis, who attempted his first high jump in 2006 and the following year won the world championship. Athletes like Thomas who engage in sampling at a young age make the most of a period of mental flexibility that pays dividends as they grow older and their brains become more rigid.

It’s not just athletes who benefit. Author and psychologist Laurence Steinberg wrote in The New York Times that young people who delay adulthood by taking longer to finish school, get a job, marry and have children are better primed to acquire new skills later in life. “Those who prolong adolescence actually have an advantage, as long as their environment gives them continued stimulation and increasing challenges,” he writes.

This also goes against the conventional wisdom that tells 20-somethings to grow up, settle down and get a job. Parents and educators encourage students to find an interest and pick a practical career path like engineering, business or applied sciences — the earlier the better to build up the specialized knowledge and experience that today’s jobs require.

But there are risks. Take the young people who decided to pursue a six-year pharmacy degree, enticed by robust job opportunities and thepromise of a fat paycheck. As reported in the New Republiclast month, experts in 2001 were predicting a 157,000 person shortfall of pharmacists. Fast-forward 10 years and that deficit turned into a surplus, leaving some young graduates marooned by an expensive education and stagnant job market.

In today’s world, it makes more sense to recruit for potential and trainability. Investment banks long ago realized this, blitzing top schools and snapping up smart new graduates regardless of their degree. Companies in the tech sector have picked up the practice, recruiting the best and brightest for their aptitude and agility.

Take my son’s former babysitter. She graduated from Northwestern University last May with a degree in communications and dance and took up a management-track position with LinkedIn this fall. She’ll go through job rotations in sales, marketing, analytics and technology, learning about multiple aspects of the business before settling on a specific job.

She’s not an IT engineer or a data scientist. She’s a smart young person who found a passion for dance and engaged in a sustained and deep study of the art. That commitment and focus has real value to companies, providing the sort of lateral thinking and creativity that you simply can’t train.

My fellow English majors should rejoice, too. All of you history, philosophy, anthropology and social science graduates as well.

We didn’t waste time and money on an expensive college education with questionable job prospects. Rather, we were deep in a sampling period, developing the sort of resilience and mental agility that will pay dividends long into the future.

As it turns out, practice is not so perfect after all and neither is what is traditionally considered practical.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.