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Hard Work and Practice Can’t Guarantee Success

This article was written by in Career and Work. 5 comments.

I’ve written extensively about taking control of one’s own finances. My life changed for me when I realized I had more control over my personal situation than I previously believed. Every human has the power to make every decision based on a future benefit.

One can choose to use a pay raise to pay off an overdue credit card or to justify the unnecessary purchase of a new car. One can choose to go to work early every day and otherwise impress the executives to earn a raise, or to do nothing beyond the scope of a job description and stagnate in one position in a career for a decade or more. One can choose to work hard in school and excel to prepare for a fruitful career, or to enroll in easy classes, not take education seriously, and not develop the critical thinking skills necessary to be successful later in life.

It sounds easy: just think about what you want for yourself in the future, and make day-to-day choices that bring you closer to that goal.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. The ability to make good decisions is itself complicated, but the entire philosophy rests on the idea that all people are starting from the same position and have the same opportunities.

Decision-making is complicated because humans are not logical. Some people may strive to make good decisions by keeping emotions as far away from the decision-making process as possible, but the truth is that’s impossible. Every decision we make, as human beings, is an emotional decision. Decisions are also not always binary options. In reality, dealing with a raise is not a choice between one very good option (paying off an overdue credit card) and one very bad option (justifying the unnecessary purchase of a new car).

Further complicating the decision-making process is that lives are full of issues with different levels of priority. When you are faced with urgent matters — everything that needs to be handled immediately — you aren’t able to focus on more important matters, or decisions whose effects may not be felt for years. You can’t save for retirement if your cash flow only covers the bare necessities of your shelter and sustenance. (And “getting a better job” or “downsizing your living space,” even if possible otherwise, still requires an upfront investment of time and money you do not have.)

But hard work is supposed to be the solution that overcomes all obstacles. Malcolm Gladwell synthesized a few research studies when he wrote about the “10,000 hour rule.” Following the 10,000 hour rule, anyone can become an expert with through deliberate practice with the intent of improving, as long as he or she puts the time in. More research disagrees with this premise.

A recent article in Slate addresses the research that disproves Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained. For example, deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variation for games such as chess, 21 percent for music, and 18 percent for sports. So, deliberate practice did not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the performance variation in these fields. In concrete terms, what this evidence means is that racking up a lot of deliberate practice is no guarantee that you’ll become an expert. Other factors matter.

It turns out that genetics plays a role, too, on an individual basis. That may be true for some skills, like musical or athletic ability. It may be just an anecdote, but I can see how the genetic proclivity for musical talent has been transferred from generation to generation in my own family, going back at least four generations on my mother’s side.

While musical ability and aptitude for expertise may develop in part due to genetics, it remains to be proved whether the same factor is as strong for success in business. It’s clear that some business allow executive roles to stay within the family from one generation to the next, but that’s not genetics, just family favoritism.

Outside of genetics and deliberate practice, starting a skill early in age is another important factor in success.

In their study, Gobet and Campitelli found that chess players who started playing early reached higher levels of skill as adults than players who started later, even after taking into account the fact that the early starters had accumulated more deliberate practice than the later starters. There may be a critical window during childhood for acquiring certain complex skills, just as there seems to be for language.

Success with complex cognitive tasks like playing chess or learning may not be associated directly with success in running a business, achieving financial independence, or making the social connections necessary for becoming an executive at a corporation, but the idea that a child who focuses on skill during certain stages of development is better prepared to excel with that skill throughout life.

While some of the reasons involve chemical changes in the brain, being involved with activities during childhood could also help someone develop a passion for those activities. And that passion could keep a developing adult interested in excelling by become a desire to excel.

As the article in Slate points out, not all of us are starting from the same position. There is no “blank slate.” The idea that anyone could become Wolfgang Mozart or Pablo Picasso or Steve Jobs if she just puts in the required 10,000 hours of practice is wrong.

With this knowledge, should we change our approach to life? If you tend to listen to self-improvement gurus, the answer is probably yes. It’s too late to do anything about our genetics; we can’t choose the genes we inherit. We can’t go back in time and start developing skills as children. But we can make choices based on realities that science has proven.

1. Don’t expect to be a professional athlete, the next President of the United States, or the next generation’s Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

If you haven’t shown an amazing aptitude in sports by age fourteen, getting to the major leagues in any sport probably isn’t going to happen. There are some exceptions. Golf comes to mind as one sport where someone can learn to excel later in life.

It’s great to encourage children by saying they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up, even parents who say this know the chances of giving birth to the next president is unlikely. But where this is much more obvious for adults is where people believe that they can overcome nature by practicing hard for many years.

2. Look for the intrinsic value in the work you do rather than validation by outward success.

I may never be a best-selling author, particularly if I never publish a book. But even if I’m not, does it mean that all the writing I’ve done over more than the past decade was a waste of time? Absolutely not. I’ve affected a lot of people’s lives for the better. And more personally, I’ve mostly enjoyed the time I’ve spent writing. That’s important as well.

It would probably be too much to say that I would have done everything the same had I not been able to turn writing into a business.

3. Use the time you have wisely.

Along those same lines, if I was in search of business success, I would want to cut losses as early as possible in order to prevent myself from going down a path that probably won’t result in that success. I wasn’t trying to form a business when I created this site, but I was working on many different projects at the time.

When it became clear that developing Consumerism Commentary would be more fruitful as a community — people were interested in what I was writing about and people were starting to follow as I progressed along my financial journey — I put other projects on hold to focus my time and energy where it was doing the most good.

If you do want to spend 10,000 hours perfecting some skill, make it something that you enjoy doing, something with which you have already proven your excellence, or something with which you may be genetically predisposed to succeed. That way, you’re at least more likely to activate all factors in success, but even if you don’t, at least you spent those 10,000 hours doing something you enjoy.

Published or updated October 8, 2014. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous


I liked the post. Our society focuses too much on “success”. We put a lot of pressure on kids and people in general which in turn causes a lot of stress. Like you said, this is based on the premise that “we have all equal chances in life”. Democracy and capitalism tries to give, in theory, the same chances to everyone to become rich, popular, the next president etc…

But we are not made equal. Some have higher IQs, some have inherited musical talents, some could have had a lot of potential but were raised in the worst conditions possible, were not stimulated by their parents or even abused by people around them.

We, in the end, are who we are not only because of our education and experiences but also because of our genetic and personnality…

Once you can accept that, accept your limitations and talents, you can use your time wisely and spend it at doing things that matters for you and your loved ones.

I personnaly measure my success by my level of happiness and while I used to measure it by what people were thinking of me (is he making a high salary, is he in shape, does he have good enough grades and so on) I finally realized that life is short and that I’m a lot happier since I accept who I am and since I set my own rules to measure my success in life.


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avatar 2 Donna Freedman

I agree that we’re surrounded by media and peer pressure to win-win-win. But if you let other people determine whether or not your achievements are good enough, you will probably have a very unhappy life. Your advice is good advice.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Another thing that one needs is a willingness to fail. A person might have the talent or the IQ that would allow them to be the next Bill Gates, but if their personality is such that they can’t stand the though of failure, then they won’t take on the risk that comes with the potential for great success. It is not a flaw in these people’s personalities. It is just that not everyone is geared to be a risk taker. They can funnel their desire for security into being a great employee with potential for success in that arena. That might be enough for them.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

The older I get the more I realize this is an unjust world. The book of Job explains it clearly. You can do nothing wrong and still get the shaft or you can do wrong and still prosper. I find that most people believe this a just world and if they do A they’ll get B. I guess it would be too frightening to admit that they’re really not in control of life.

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avatar 5 qixx

I can’t remember what i was reading recently that suggested after winning a game the better question to ask is “What did you learn?” You can learn something when you win that makes winning again to be more likely. If there is nothing to learn from the win then it was not worth your time and efforts. Wasting time and effort is not the way to do things to improve.

The same is also true if you lose so there is no need to change the focus and conversation regardless of the “victory” of the outcome.

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