Hocus Focus: Deliberate Practice, the Myth of the 10,000-Hour Rule and the Illusion of Mastery

An article on deliberate practice and how amateur magicians can take advantage of a more mindful approach to practising magic.

Welcome to the first of several articles on the often-ignored topic of practising magic. Specifically, I want to explore the benefits of being more deliberate, intentional and focused when learning and practising sleight-of-hand (hence the title of this column). In this post, I'll discuss deliberate practice and how amateur magicians can take advantage of it. I'll also cover the myth of the 10,000-hour rule and one of the biggest pitfalls of mindless practice: the illusion of mastery.

For the purpose of this column, I'm treating the study and practice of magic as two distinct activities. In truth, it is difficult to separate them because one usually leads directly to the other. In addition, all successful magical performances combine procedural skills with declarative, conceptual knowledge. This makes it difficult to discuss the performance of magic without talking about both the practical and theoretical aspects of conjuring. However, I want Hocus Focus to concentrate on the more functional elements of magic alone.

Also, while this article touches on the concept of expertise as it applies to magic, it doesn't dwell on it. This is a complex topic and deserves its own article. I also need more time to read up on this topic before I fully understand it (several new meta-studies on deliberate practice and expertise have been published in recent years). In the meantime, this article should serve as a solid introduction to classic deliberate practice theory.

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What is Practice?

Generally speaking, life offers few low-effort opportunities for effective learning and skill improvement. As a result, most amateur magicians do not engage in large amounts of mindful practice. This lack of deliberate practice explains why so many magicians only reach basic proficiency in the deceptive arts. However, before we look more closely at deliberate practice, we must first understand what we mean by regular, everyday "practice".

Practice is the act of repeating a behaviour to learn and eventually master a skill. In the context of learning magic, practice usually involves learning a new magic trick or preparing for a public performance. However, a magician might also practice to enhance and refine their working repertoire or maintain an existing skill, such as second dealing.

In my experience, most magicians practice on autopilot (myself included). You perform a trick until something goes wrong, stopping and repeating that particular section of the trick until you can complete it successfully. You then continue until something else goes wrong, or you forget what to do next. This stop-start cycle continues until you finish the trick or get bored and give up. However, if somebody asked you to explain why you stopped, it is unlikely that you'd be able to identify why things went wrong. This is because you're practising mindlessly.

While this "brute force" or "broken record" method of practising works, several problems are associated with it. Mindless practice wastes time, can damage your confidence and is mind-numbingly dull! Very little learning takes place when we practice this way. This is why you can spend hours practising a trick but still lack the confidence to perform it in public. Worse still, mindless practice can reinforce undesirable habits, which can be very difficult to correct or unlearn in the future. Rather than reiterating the well-known phrase "practice makes perfect", I think "practice makes permanent" is a better mantra for magicians.

So why do we do it? In short, mindless practice is easy, convenient and strangely comforting. The alternative—deliberate practice—involves much more effort but is less costly in the long run.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Most magicians understand that a magic trick must be deliberately practised until the technical performance hardly requires any physical or mental effort. This allows the magician to direct more energy to the theatrical elements of the trick (acting, vocal delivery and audience interaction, for example). This wisdom is widely accepted as one of the "golden rules" of magic.

The concept of deliberate practice was popularised by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who spent his life researching the psychological nature of expert performance. His research concentrated on the practice habits of professional athletes, chess players1 and musicians. 


K. Anders Ericsson. Photo Credit: Katarina Lofgren via Penguin Random House.

Professor Anders defined the concept of deliberate practice as individualised training activities specially designed, usually by a coach or teacher, to improve specific aspects of a person's performance through repetition and successive refinement2. This is in contrast to indirect or informal learning, which enables us to acquire the basic life skills needed to exist in a cultured society with a minimum of instruction.


The study of chess is the most popular subject for research into expertise and deliberate practice. Photo Credit: Jan Vašek via Pixabay.

In an ideal world, deliberate practice involves rehearsal within a person's zone of proximal development3, ongoing performance assessment, tailored goal-setting, and close mentoring with expert feedback. Unfortunately, most magicians, especially amateur ones, lack access to a magic mentor or teacher who can provide these things. Therefore, for our purposes, deliberate practice can be defined as any focused activity designed to improve performance.

Another way to think about it is that deliberate or mindful practice is the opposite of mindless practice. There are three significant differences between the two types of practice. Deliberate practice always involves:

  • immediate, actionable feedback;
  • the formulation of goals and objectives;
  • a focus on technique.

Firstly, mindless practice does not involve any kind of feedback mechanism. On the other hand, deliberate practice always provides immediate, actionable feedback to the learner. For example, many magicians use a three-panel mirror to provide immediate feedback on how a trick or sleight looks from the audience's perspective4. It is also an excellent idea to record your practice sessions using a digital camera or a smartphone. Once you have finished performing a trick, you can watch the footage to identify any technical mistakes, such as flashing or unnatural movements. Watching a recording of your performance, even though it can be a deeply unpleasant experience, can highlight problems with your body language and vocal delivery—a common issue is that we speak too quickly and, as a result, use a lot of disfluencies ("uhms" and "ahhs").

Secondly, mindless practice has no particular direction or purpose, whereas deliberate practice always involves establishing clearly defined goals and objectives. Instead of random trial and error, deliberate practice is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation. It encourages you to take the time to stop and analyse what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how the error can be permanently corrected.

Third, mindless practice only concentrates on completing a trick or sleight, while deliberate practice focuses on technique. Sure, you still finish the trick or move, but you also understand why you were able to do it successfully. This process usually involves breaking down the trick or sleight into its constituent parts to better understand why it works.

Most importantly, deliberate practice requires focused attention and a solution-oriented approach to problem-solving. And it is always conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

The 10,000-Hour Rule and Why You Should Ignore It

It is impossible to talk about deliberate practice without mentioning the 10,000-hour rule as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his New York Times best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success. The rule states that it takes roughly ten years, or 10,000 hours of practice, to achieve mastery in any skill or field of expertise5.


Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Image Credit: Malcolm Gladwell.

Thanks to a 2014 study into a group of Finnish magicians, we know that the 10,000-hour rule holds true for professional magicians as well as chess players and musicians6. The study discovered that there was a typical trajectory for the development of a professional magician. First contact with magic happens, on average, at age seven (experiencing a magic trick, watching a magic show, or reading a magic book). Deliberate practice was initiated, on average, at the age of thirteen. Approximately ten years later, a relatively high level of expertise is achieved (at the average age of twenty-four).


Trajectories for becoming a professional magician (Adapted from Ericsson, 2003). Image Credit: Frontiers in Psychology.

Professor Ericsson's groundbreaking research paper, published in 1993 in Psychological Review, formed the basis for the so-called 10,000-hour rule. Even though Gladwell's book popularised Ericsson's research, it irritated him because he felt it oversimplified his findings—he always insisted that quantity and quality were both important. His famous research study, focused on violinists at a music academy in Berlin, was misinterpreted by Malcolm Gladwell, who failed to understand that the number was essentially arbitrary. It represented the average practice time that the most accomplished students had accumulated by the time they turned twenty. In fact, many of the best violinists in the study put in less than the now-recommended 10,000 hours of practice. Similarly, in the study of Finnish magicians previously mentioned, the actual deliberate practice time varied between seven to twenty-three years for the individual participants involved in the study; again highlighting that the 10,000-hour rule represents an average timespan, not a standard one.

Unfortunately, the 10,000-hour rule quickly captured the public's imagination and this myth is now accepted as a universal truth. Rather than focusing on the amount of practice you complete, try to concentrate on the quality of your practice sessions. Don't let this rule put you off from engaging in deliberate practice. Most people, especially amateur magicians, don't even need to achieve expert performance to be successful. Yes, you must master each trick you choose to perform, but you don't have to be proficient in every aspect of the magical arts. Put another way, you can still enjoy magic as a hobby, or make it your primary profession, without being an expert practitioner.

Furthermore, more recent research suggests that deliberate practice is only a single piece of a much bigger puzzle7. The 10,000-hour rule makes people believe that people require similar amounts of deliberate practice to acquire expert performance. In reality, some people can achieve expert proficiency in much less time, while others can spend a lifetime practising and still fail to achieve an elite level of performance. While research into deliberate practice explains a considerable amount of the variance in the data, it leaves a substantial amount of it unexplained. So what else matters? Other factors, such as starting agegeneral intelligence and personality, may well make a difference. For example, some scientific studies suggest that there may be a critical period for acquiring complex skills, such as sleight of hand, just as there may be for developing language. However, it also makes logical sense that the earlier you start practising magic, the more time you have to accumulate deliberate practice. There is also some evidence that individual differences in performance might be connected to general intelligence, which is thought to have a genetic component. Finally, it has been proven that your personality affects the amount of deliberate practice you're likely to engage in. For example, if you have a high level of "grit"—a personality trait reflecting persistence in accomplishing long-term goals—you're much more likely to regularly engage in mindful practice8.

Scientifically, this is all very difficult to untangle. But, in truth, we know that deliberate practice is a critical component in acquiring expert performance. Still, we don't know how much difference it makes, especially to amateur magicians or part-time professionals. The essential thing to remember here is that everyone learns and improves at a different speed, and not everyone can achieve expert status.

It is also important to point out that most of the existing research into deliberate practice and expertise has been conducted in the skill domains of chess, music and medicine. In fact, the 10,000-hour rule was first observed in an early study of expertise in chess by Simon and Chase9. They noticed that nobody had attained the grandmaster level with less than a decade's worth of intense preparation.

However, unlike chess grandmasters, world-renowned musicians, and eminent doctors, professional magic practitioners receive little formal training or education (if any). Instead, a magician's professional expertise develops through years of study and deliberate practice, engagement with informal social networks, and peer instruction (sharing professional know-how). Furthermore, this expertise is maintained by a strong passion for magic and is often facilitated through informal mentoring from a more experienced magician. This makes magic a challenging topic for researchers to investigate.

A further complication is that conjuring involves a wide variety of sophisticated skills and professional knowledge. Practitioners must master a diverse body of skills and competencies that are not relevant to other domains of expertise. For example, a magician needs a working knowledge of psychology (the ability to read and misdirect an audience), good manual dexterity (sleight of hand), technical insight (abstract theory), as well as an understanding of performance techniques (acting, dance, comedy). The performance of magic also often involves working with animals. If you're a stage magician, there's stage presence, sound and lighting design, scriptwriting, and the creation of props, costumes and other magical equipment (such as large-scale illusions). Magicians also often end up doing their own marketing and promotion!

Finally, unlike chess players, many top-flight magicians also choose not to perform in formal competitions, such as the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques World Championships of Magic (FISM). This makes it difficult for researchers to determine what skills are essential to perform magic well.

The take-home message here is that deliberate practice is an essential factor in the acquisition of skill, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. Other activities, such as sustained professional development and networking with other magicians, help build expertise. In addition, the age at which you become interested in magic and your DNA also impact your ability to become an expert magician.

The Illusion of Mastery

Magicians are particularly vulnerable to this cognitive bias. Practising a magic trick repeatedly often gives us a false sense of mastery. This is an example of poor metacognition (what we know about our own thought processes and the patterns behind them). A magic trick is only truly mastered once you've performed it for real people. The key to mastery isn't repetition but internalisation—you know the trick so well that you can concentrate on your presentation and cope (and react appropriately) when something unexpected happens during a live performance.

Much like a musician, a magician's biggest hurdle is the physical and psychological leap from the practice room to a live performance environment. Hours and hours of practice seem to fly out of the window and count for nothing when you perform a trick for the first time—this can lead to a great deal of embarrassment and frustration. How could you perform the trick so well in the privacy of your own home, only to falter in the face of a real audience?

The primary issue here is one of context. The pressure is off when you practise a trick in the comfort of your own home, staring at your reflection in your practice mirror. Unsurprisingly, you can perform the card trick perfectly in this supportive situation, especially with the instructional content close by for guidance. But when you're in front of a live audience, performance anxiety can kick in, no matter how much you've practised. You have managed to master the trick in a more relaxed setting, which gives you a false sense of security, but you're not ready to perform it in public. This is the illusion of mastery. 

Paradoxically, the only way to get over this issue is to perform the trick for a live audienceshocking, I know! But other techniques can be applied to help ease the transition from practice to performance, such as dress rehearsals and relaxation techniques (deep breathing, affirmations and other warm-up exercises). However, simply knowing about the illusion of mastery can help you avoid this performance pitfall.

Performance as Practice

Now, I'm not suggesting you perform a trick before putting in an adequate amount of practice beforehand. However, it might be helpful to consider performance as a form of "active practice". You receive immediate feedback from your audience during a live performance, so why not take advantage of the situation? 

You can also film your performances for later review and analysis. In this way, your performances act the same way as a practice session or dress rehearsal (so long as you're prepared to engage in self-reflective thinking post-performance).

In Summary

So what does all this mean for the amateur magician? First, any amount of deliberate practice is likely to improve your chances of being a successful performer. Yes, it takes much more effort to practice in this way, but the rewards are greater. This approach also helps with your long-term motivation because you can track your progress more easily when engaging in deliberate practice.

Try to avoid engaging in too much mindless practice. While it is tempting to practice in front of the TV, all that tends to happen is that your props become a glorified fidget toy—maybe it would be better to play with an actual fidget toy instead? The only real benefit I can attach to this kind of practice is that it might help you develop finger strength and muscle memory. Try not to over-practice (another bad habit associated with mindless practice). Deliberate practice requires focused attention. This need for intense concentration limits the duration of daily training. To avoid burnout or exhaustion, Professor Ericsson suggested no more than four hours a day of sustained practice was sensible.

Establish a schedule of deliberate practice sessions, which you record on video for immediate review. Even better, ask a trusted family member, friend or fellow magician to watch your practice session (this is easier and quicker than video recording your performances). They will then be able to provide you with much more helpful immediate feedback. How well you improve with practice depends on several things, such as the frequency you engage in deliberate practice and the availability of such immediate feedback to aid improvement. If feedback is present and appropriate, the practice session will be much more effective and beneficial to your overall learning and progress.

Finally, make sure you formulate a specific goal or set of objectives related to each scheduled practice session. For example, you might decide that you want to improve the deceptiveness of your classic pass in the context of your Ambitious Card routine. By embracing deliberate practice and making it our default mode of learning, we can all become better magicians.


Footnotes

  1. Chess studies have always been popular when investigating deliberate practice because the game of chess offers an objective measurement of performance called the Elo rating system. It is also reasonably easy to design representative lab tests for chess players, something that would be very difficult to do with the performance of magic.

  2. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer, "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance", Psychological Review Vol. 100, No. 3 (1993): 363-406, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363.

  3. Your zone of proximal development represents the distance between what you're capable of doing on your own, and what you can achieve when supported by a more knowledgeable person. The concept was introduced by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the last few years of his life.

  4. Be careful when practising in front of a mirror. It is a useful technique for checking your angles, but too much time in front of your own reflection can cause you to stare at your hands, and squint or close your eyes when you perform a secret move!

  5. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, 1st ed. (New York: 2008), 35.

  6. Olli Rissanen et al., "Expertise among professional magicians: an interview study", Frontiers in Psychology Volume 5, (2014): 1-8, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01484.

  7. David Z. Hambrick et al., "Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?", Intelligence Volume 45, (2014): 34-45, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.04.001.

  8. Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, 1st ed. (New York: 2016).

  9. Herbert A. Simon and William G. Chase, "Skill in chess", American Scientist 61(4), (1973): 394-403.