10,000 or 20,000 hours?

10,000-hour ruleMalcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of the “10,000-hour rule” in his 2008 book, Outliers. As Wikipedia describes it, “…the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”*

Gladwell does not specifically say that 10,000 hours of practice or apprenticeship will make you an expert. Like most things on the internet, it has been altered in the transmission; dumbed down for the simplistic misquotes we love to pair with pictures of kittens or puppies on Facebook.

Rather what he said was that it will make you damned good. Way above the rest. A phenom, as Eric Dekkers said:

…he’s talking about those surprising success stories who stand head and shoulders above the elite performers in their industry. That one guy who is way better than the 31 other “best quarterbacks in the country.” That one woman who fearsomely dominates all other female tennis players in the world.

Still, the concept and the generalization behind it have not gone unchallenged. As science writer David Bradley wrote for the BBC,

Scientifically speaking, 10,000 hours is not a precise figure but shorthand for “lots and lots of dedicated practice”. Even 10,000 hours of dedicated practice may not be enough to give you the skills of a virtuoso. But whether you dream of playing at the concert hall, wielding the guitar, or taking part on the running track, 10,000 hours is a good starting point. Double that and you may even be winning international competitions.

Bradley also notes that 10,000 is a lot of time doing repetitive practice:

To notch up 10,000 hours would require about 90 minutes of practice every day for 20 years. This might explain why the typical child learning the piano will never make it to concert level. Three hours a day gets you to that stage within a decade, so start at the age of ten and you’re done before you’re out of your teens.

Imagine you’re a 10-year old starting violin lessons. Your parents make you practice an hour every school day, but give you weekends and holidays off. You might be able to get in 195 days or practice a year. At that rate, it would take more than 51 years to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “expert” level.

Okay, ramp it up. Practice every weekday for an hour. Two week break for holidays, so 50 weeks by five hours a day: 250 hours a year. Now you can become an expert (okay, a phenom) in just 40 years. Still a long time.

You want the child to be a world renowned concert violinist by age 20, with 10,000 hours of practice behind him or her? Then the little blighter needs to practice 1,000 hours a year: ten years of effort. That’s just shy of three hours of practice every day, with no breaks for holidays. Or just shy of four hours, if you restrict practice time to weekdays, but include holidays.

Let’s say you could practice 8 hours a day. It would take 1,250 continuous days to get in 10,000 hours. About three-and-a-half years. And it has to be dedicated practice. Working in a job – especially one where you do things by rote – doesn’t count towards the total unless you continually worked towards improvement. That is somewhat the point is using the Beatles’ gigs in Hamburg as an example: they played nightly for up to eight hours a night, learning to work as a team, to improvise and to build stamina.**

As Bradley writes:

Ericsson is also on record as emphasising that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour average. It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement. Not all the examples in Gladwell’s book qualify as such deliberate practice: writing computer programs and playing ice-hockey matches, for instance, may not count. It’s not a matter of simply taking part in an activity, Ericsson argues. Sportspeople have other considerations, for instance, there are physical limits on how much dedicated practice is possible.

But for every rule, there are always exceptions. Mozart was taught piano from age four and was composing his own work from age five, clearly before he had put in his 10,000 hours. Like Shakespeare, he learned from others and was able to synthesize what he got from them into a new art.

There are many such examples of people – often but not always geniuses – who had innate talent or the genius that allowed their creative abilities to flower without needing to put in the hours of grinding away at their art or science.

I take Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” as a bit of literary hyperbole, like Bradley does. Most of us need constant, regular practice to get good at anything, more to become an expert. But the exact number depends on the individual, and whatever muse inspires them. I’ve put in more than 10,000 on guitar since the mid-1960s, and am still a base amateur. But then, I didn’t spend them all in dedicated practice. But even if I had, I would only rise to adequate, since – despite the passion for playing music – I don’t have that innate genius for it.

Talent matters, as David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz wrote in the NY Times Sunday Review:

A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities.

Bradley again:

Many of us imagine that hours and hours spent on our chosen pursuit are somehow edging us towards that target of 10,000. I’ve played guitar since the age of 12, but I don’t imagine that I’m anything but a total amateur – musically speaking – I’ve not put in the dedicated, repetitive practice. Anyone who has heard me strumming might suggest that I plug headphones into my guitar amp and practise for another 10,000 hours before letting anyone ever hear me play again.

Bradley isn’t the only writer to challenge Gladwell’s rule. The blogger at All About Work said this:

If you Google “10,000-hour rule” like I did, you can find some other very thoughtful discussions of why this rule isn’t a rule, and why 10,000 hours of activity in and of itself is not a recipe for success. Gladwell states in this article that his work “is not going to be as rigorous and as carefully argued and complete as an academic work, because [it’s] popular non-fiction” (p. 398). But that doesn’t justify inferring something from your source material that isn’t there, or declaring something as a “rule” or a “magic number” without some substantive support for it.

In a case of literary one-upmanship, Robert Greene pushed this to 20,000 hours in his latest book, Mastery. I wrote about this book, recently. For 20,000 hours, take the numbers above and double them. That’s one of the reasons I’m more critical of Greene’s book than of Outliers, but neither really satisfy me.

The bottom line is: practice. Forget trying to add up the hours, forget trying to reach some artificial milestone. Just do it. Even if you never become the master, you will certainly become better.



* For reference, out of the 24 hours in a day, we normally spend only 16 awake. We spend approx. 4-6 of those waking hours eating, preparing, in ablutions and other biological functions, leaving 10-12 for practice. There are 168 hours in a week, only 112 of which you normally spend awake; of which between 70 and 84 are available for practice. There are 8,760 hours in a year, of which you normally spend 5,840 awake; between 3,650 and 4,380 of them available for practice. This assumes that you do not do anything else in those hours – like school, work, watching TV, answering the phone or reading.

** Clearly the Beatles didn’t put in 10,000 hours onstage in Hamburg. They often alternated shows with other bands, and were back in England after being deported in December, 1960, for about four months. Plus they were back in England for performances (July 1961-April 1962, June 62-August 62) and an audition at Decca Records in January, 1962. All told they were there at best about 500 days. Even at eight hours a day that would only be 4,000 hours, assuming that they were the only performers and played every night.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.

2 thoughts on “10,000 or 20,000 hours?”

  1. Interesting report on Science Daily today:

    Turns out, that old “practice makes perfect” adage may be overblown. New research led by Michigan State University’s Zach Hambrick finds that a copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level of skill in two widely studied activities, chess and music.

    In other words, it takes more than hard work to become an expert. Hambrick, writing in the research journal Intelligence, said natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity.

    A bit further on you’ll read:

    Based on existing research, Hambrick said it could be explained by factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity. A previous study of Hambrick’s suggested that working memory capacity — which is closely related to general intelligence — may sometimes be the deciding factor between being good and great.

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