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.