One of the most commonly cited figures when it comes to improving yourself is the so-called 10,000 hour rule.
According to Malcolm Gladwell who popularised the notion in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, people who were performing at an expert level, such as musicians or sportspeople, had practiced for approximately 10,000 hours up to that point.
Therefore, if you wanted to become a master at anything, whether it be painting, karate or accounting, the advice became that you need to focus and practice that long as well. Or in many cases, force your younger children to practice for this long.
However, the authors behind the original study that Gladwell based his figures on now claim that he wasn’t actually very accurate.
This has wide implications for anyone trying to develop a skill and expertise, both vitally important for coming up with and executing new ideas.
What the original study actually found
In 1993 Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer published the results of a study on a group of violin students in a music academy in Berlin that found that the most accomplished of those students had put in an average of ten thousand hours of practice by the time they were twenty years old. That paper would go on to become a major part of the scientific literature on expert performers, but it was not until 2008, with the publication of “Outliers,” that the paper’s results attracted much attention from outside the scientific community.
Now, Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool have a new book coming out called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. They recently laid out some of its main points in an article for Salon, where they pointed out the fundamental flaws with the 10,000 hour rule:
The rule is irresistibly appealing. It’s easy to remember, for one thing. It would’ve been far less effective if those violinists had put in, say, eleven thousand hours of practice by the time they were twenty. And it satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-and-effect relationship: just put in ten thousand hours of practice at anything, and you will become a master.
They then go into detail about the first of its specific flaws:
First, there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours. Gladwell could just as easily have mentioned the average amount of time the best violin students had practiced by the time they were eighteen (approximately seventy-four hundred hours) but he chose to refer to the total practice time they had accumulated by the time they were twenty, because it was a nice round number.
And, either way, at eighteen or twenty, these students were nowhere near masters of the violin. They were very good, promising students who were likely headed to the top of their field, but they still had a long way to go when at the time of the study. Pianists who win international piano competitions tend to do so when they’re around thirty years old, and thus they’ve probably put in about twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand hours of practice by then; ten thousand hours is only halfway down that path.
I will come back to this point later in this article, because it is very important to differentiate between the amount of time that is required to become extremely good at something, to become a master at something and to become the world’s best at something.
However, the next flaw is potentially the more challenging one:
Second, the number of ten thousand hours at age twenty for the best violinists was only an average. Half of the ten violinists in that group hadn’t actually accumulated ten thousand hours at that age. Gladwell misunderstood this fact and incorrectly claimed that all the violinists in that group had accumulated over ten thousand hours.
So taken at its most fundamental level, 10,000 hours of practice will actually only keep you level on average with everyone else working towards your same goal. At most stages in your life, if you’re committed to practice and improvement, that figure means you’ll be ahead of about half of your competition, but still be behind the other half.
So you’re actually further away from mastery than most people would think.
Finally, here is the piece of information that may have the biggest impact for most people in their own pursuit of developing their skills:
Third, Gladwell didn’t distinguish between the type of practice that the musicians in our study did — a very specific sort of practice referred to as “deliberate practice” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them — and any sort of activity that might be labeled “practice.”
This is where we get to the crux of what makes some people improve faster than others. Deliberate practice is about being completely honest with yourself about what you want to improve, finding the best ways to actually achieve that improvement, and then actually executing that practice even if it is challenging and uncomfortable.
How deliberate practice pushes people to the very top
Another excellent article on this subject can be found on James Clear’s website, where he goes into detail about two more examples of deliberate practice: Kobe Bryant’s attitude towards practice and the “10 years of silence” for the world’s most famous composers.
He highlights a story from someone named Robert who trained with Kobe Bryant when he was part of the Team USA Olympic team:
I was invited to Las Vegas to help Team USA with their conditioning before they headed off to London. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in the past, but this would be my first interaction with Kobe.
The night before the first scrimmage, I had just watched “Casablanca” for the first time and it was about 3:30 AM.
A few minutes later, I was in bed, slowly fading away, when I heard my cell ring. It was Kobe. I nervously picked up.
“Hey, uhh, Rob, I hope I’m not disturbing anything right?”
“Uhh, no. What’s up Kob?”
“Just wondering if you could help me out with some conditioning work, that’s all.”
I checked my clock. 4:15 AM.
“Yeah sure, I’ll see you in the facility in a bit.”
It took me about twenty minutes to get my gear and get out of the hotel. When I arrived and opened the room to the main practice floor, I saw Kobe. Alone. He was drenched in sweat as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn’t even 5:00 AM.
We did some conditioning work for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Then, we entered the weight room, where he would do a multitude of strength training exercises for the next 45 minutes. After that, we parted ways. He went back to the practice floor to shoot. I went back to the hotel and crashed. Wow.
I was expected to be at the floor again at about 11:00 AM.
I woke up feeling sleepy, drowsy, and pretty much every side effect of sleep deprivation. (Thanks, Kobe.) I had a bagel and headed to the practice facility.
This next part I remember very vividly. All of the Team USA players were there. LeBron was talking to Carmelo and Coach Krzyzewski was trying to explain something to Kevin Durant. On the right side of the practice facility Kobe was by himself shooting jumpers.
I went over to him, patted him on the back and said, “Good work this morning.”
“Like, the conditioning. Good work.”
“Oh. Yeah, thanks Rob. I really appreciate it.”
“So when did you finish?”
“Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?”
“Oh, just now. I wanted 800 makes. So yeah, just now.”
As James Clear points out, Kobe Bryant started his conditioning work around 4:30am, continued to run and sprint until 6am, lifted weights from 6am to 7am, and finally proceeded to make 800 jump shots between 7am and 11am. But more importantly than that, even when most of us would collapse from exhaustion, he stayed on to make 800 jump shots.
Not just staying on the court and “practicing” from 7-11am, but doing one single motion to hone a specific skill, in his case jump shots.
This is one of the things which separates world class performers in any discipline from the rest. Specific, deliberate focus on improvement, and breaking down ways to improve.
I’m now 33 years old. I’m sure I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours on a computer (in fact, I just did a back-of-an-envelope calculation and it suggested close to 14,000 hours). But I am no computer programmer, even if my Excel skills are better than most. Similarly, many people in their 40s will have spent more than 10,000 hours driving a car, but that doesn’t make them able to race a teenage go-kart champion (in fact, many of these adults still struggle to parallel park despite “practicing” it hundreds or thousands of times).
This is the difference between just “putting in the time” and “deliberate practice”.
Another example of how this translates into reality is a fascinating study performed by John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who wanted to see the link between experience and creative output for the world’s top composers. The question he was most interested in was “How long after one becomes interested in music is it that one becomes world class?”
He analyzed thousands of musical pieces produced between the years of 1685 to 1900, which covered the majority of classical compositions. Eventually, Hayes developed a list of 500 pieces that were played frequently by symphonies around the world and were considered to be the “masterworks”. These 500 popular pieces were created by a total of 76 composers.
Next, Hayes mapped out the timeline of each composer’s career and calculated how long they had been working before they created their popular works. What he discovered was that nearly every single “masterwork” was written after year ten of the composer’s career. (Out of 500 pieces there were only three exceptions, which were written in years eight and nine.)
Not a single person produced incredible work without putting in a decade of practice first. Even a genius like Mozart, who is widely cited as having been able to compose by the age of 5, had to work for at least ten years before he produced something that became popular. Professor Hayes began to refer to this period, which was filled with hard work and little recognition, as the “ten years of silence.”
What does this all mean for you and me?
If this all seems a bit depressing, then it shouldn’t be.
While this evidence suggests that it might be hard to become one of the world’s best performers, most of us are not out to achieve that. For most of us, we want to know whether we can improve enough to see ourselves become better and feel like we are achieving something.
Here, Ericsson and Pool give their view on what their research actually suggests.
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 for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement (it took Steve Faloon only a couple of hundred hours of practice to become the best ever at memorizing strings of digits) but you have only scratched the surface.
You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.
Additionally, it is important to remember that you don’t need to be a world-class performer to be creative and have ideas.
Too many people believe that they aren’t creative because they’re not a skilled artist. They might say “I can’t draw to save my life” or “I’m a terrible singer and can’t play the guitar”.
In reality, you don’t need to be “arty” to be creative and have ideas. You can have ideas in whatever domain you work in.
The opposite is also true. Just because someone is a good performer doesn’t mean they’ll ever be able to produce their own work. This is why contestants on TV Talent shows, especially singing ones like the X Factor, often fail to make a career when they find out they can’t create their own songs.
There are also little things you can do to “practice” your creativity. This is one of the reasons why I created the 30 Day Creativity Training tracker. This free training shows you easy everyday activities you can try to get your brain more efficient at forming new ideas, each and every day. It’s like deliberate practice for your creativity.
You can get yours free, including the explanation of how it use it, by clicking the button here:
So go on, make sure you are as creative as you can be.
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Copyright: Photo in title of Violinist by Gavin Whitner
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