The 10000 hour rule

This is part 2 of a series of posts on persistence being a key factor to success.

In my previous post we went over the Matthew Effect and how you can make use of it to win an edge over your competition and peers (In short, knowing how to capitalize on an initial edge and play to your strengths can make a huge difference. That said, nothing comes without effort, you have to work for it).

In this post I am going to go over a concept called the 10,000 hour rule. This term was coined by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, in the early 90s. However, it was Malcolm Gladwell (Canadian journalist, speaker, staff writer for The New Yorker, and author of 4 New York Times Bestsellers) who brought everyone’s attention to the 10,000 Hour Rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. In his book, Gladwell claims that 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.

When Dr. Ericsson was originally researching this, he and his team divided students into three groups ranked by excellence at the Berlin Academy of Music and then correlated achievement with hours of practice. They found that the elite all had put in about 10000 hours of practice, the good 8000 and the average 4000 hours. No one had fast-tracked. This rule was then applied to other disciplines and Ericsson found that it proved valid.

From Wikipedia:

Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Bill Gates’ computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, “so by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.'” Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

In Outliers, Gladwell interviews Gates, who says that unique access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace helped him succeed. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be “a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional”, but that he might not be worth US$50 billion. Gladwell explains that reaching the 10,000-Hour Rule, which he considers the key to success in any field, is simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years. He also notes that he himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule, during his brief tenure at The American Spectator and his more recent job at The Washington Post.

My take on it:

  1. I find concepts like this fascinating, especially if it has the potential to change my life for the better. Kudos to Dr. Ericsson for researching this problem and Mr. Gladwell for popularizing the message.
  2. 10,000 hours is roughly ~5 years of time at ~40 hours per week (full-time employment), and roughly ~10 years of time at ~19 hours per week (serious hobby). So if you want to achieve greatness in anything, make sure it’s one of these two (ideally it’s the former, but that’s not always the case – not everyone can turn their passion into gainful employment).
  3. To me, it’s well worth spending a few days (or even months) to decide whether the skill you’re going to focus on is worth the time investment. Especially when you’re just starting off. Is what you’re doing (or going to do) making you happy? Are you passionate about spending most of your time on this? Why are you doing it?
  4. To some people, it may be obvious from an early age, but for others like me, it wasn’t obvious.
  5. Michael Nielsen is skeptical (even critical) when he writes, “How can one match this level of devotion? 10,000 hours is a lot of time, and most studies have found that it requires 10 or more years to put in this time, given the other demands of life. Must we commit ourselves to 10 years of deliberate practice in a single area, or content ourselves with mediocrity?”
  6. To acquire mastery in an area, it’s not enough to just practice for 10,000 hours; the person practicing must constantly strive to get better. Someone who practices without pushing themselves will plateau, no matter how many hours they practice.
  7. While 10,000 hours could be an interesting way to measure mastery in any area, I agree with Michael Nielsen when argues that it’s a mistake to simply focus on building up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as some kind of long-range goal. It is far better to focus on a set of skills that you believe are broadly important, and that you enjoy working on, a set of skills where deliberate practice gives rapid intrinsic rewards. Work as hard as possible on developing those skills, but also explore in neighboring areas, and (this is the part many people neglect) gradually move in whatever direction you find most enjoyable and meaningful. The more enjoyable and meaningful, the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to genuine mastery. The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra said it well:  Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.
  8. Most people are very good “starters”, but very poor “finishers”. Put another way, they get excited about something, get started with it, put a few hours/days/months into it, somehow convince themselves that it’s either going to fail or isn’t worth their time, and yes, inevitably quit. What a waste! To me this is worse than wasting money – or food – or water…because this time is never going to come back. Ever.
    It is estimated that the vast majority of people barely make it through the first 2 chapters of any new book they pick up. That just amazes me.
    Now, don’t get me wrong, I have been guilty of that very same thing on a few (okay, a number of) occasions, but I would (conveniently) argue that in my case I didn’t see much value in the books I decided to quit on, for it would have been a far better investment of my time to do something else. After all, time is your most valuable asset.
  9. 10,000 hours of time is hardly a small investment – on the contrary, it’s a lifetime. But if you’re going to do something, you might as well aim at being the best at it. I’m going to cover a related concept called the “Superstar effect” in a future post.

What’s your take on the 10,000 hour rule? If you have an experience to share, leave a comment below.


About Kunal Punjabi

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31. October 2011 by Kunal Punjabi
Categories: Leadership and Business | Leave a comment

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