The Great Practice Myth: Debunking the 10,000 Hour Rule

What does it take to become an expert or master performer in a given field? 10,000 hours of practice. It’s a common rule of thumb, popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. It’s catchy, easy to remember, and more or less completely false.

We’re debunking the 10,000 hour rule and taking a look at proven ways to practice, learn and achieve mastery.

by Michael Miller

 

 

“A provocative generalization,” is what Anders Ericsson calls the 10,000 hour rule. And it was Ericsson’s research on expert musicians that Gladwell cites as a basis for the rule. Ericsson says the rule is an oversimplification, and in many ways, an incorrect interpretation of his research. The 10,000 Hour Rule: Catchy and easy to remember, but on some pretty shaky scientific footing.

 

Busting the Myth of the 10,000 Hour Rule

Gladwell uses several examples in Outliers when introducing this rule: one is the research done by Ericsson that focused on violin students at a music academy in Berlin. The study found that the most accomplished of the students had put in 10,000 hours by the time they turned 20. Gladwell also estimates that the Beatles put in 10,000 hours of practice playing in Hamburg in the early 1960s, and that Bill Gates put in 10,000 hours of programming work before founding Microsoft. Hence the 10,000 hour rule was born: put in your 10,000 hours of practice, and become an expert in a given field. Pretty easy, right?

But upon closer examination, problems start to emerge.

First of all, Ericsson says, the number 10,000 is totally arbitrary. It’s catchy and easy to remember, but not really based on anything substantial. It’s the number of hours these promising violinists had put in by the time they were 20 years old. By the age of 18, they had put in an average of 7,400 hours. And even at 20, they were very good at playing the violin, and probably headed to the top of their field, but they were not yet experts.

On top of that, Gladwell misunderstood that 10,000 hours was an average, and not all the best violinists had put in this number by age 20. In fact, half of the best hadn’t put in 10,000 hours.

Since the 10,000 hour rule isn’t based on solid science, what do we know about practice and how to master a craft? A few things we know for sure are that not all learning or practice is equally helpful – and not everyone starts from the same place.

Top Resources on Learning & Practice

1  Learn how the brain learns best, with a world renowned neuroscientist:

Learning & the Brain: Neuroscientist Immordino-Yang

2   Is is possible to practice emotional intelligence – and does that support other forms of practice?

3   Join the free Practice Project mini-course to help kick start a new practice or help you stay on track with your current practice: 

Practice of Practice: Free Mini-Course

 

10,000 Hours of What? All Practice Isn’t Equal

If you wanted to get better at shooting a bow and arrow, would it be the same thing to experiment on your own for 3 hours as it would be to practice with an expert for 3 hours, who is giving you tips on form and technique and getting better? The answer is self-evident. And this is the first flaw of the 10,000 Hour Rule: It focuses on the quantity of time practicing, not the quality of the practice – and not all practice is equally helpful.

Gladwell doesn’t differentiate between types of practice, even though it’s a really important distinction. The best way to get better at something is through something known as deliberate practice, which basically means practicing in order to get better: doing activities recommended by experts to develop specific abilities, identifying weaknesses and working to correct them, and intentionally pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. “This distinction between deliberate practice aimed at a particular goal and generic practice is crucial,” Ericsson says, “because not every type of practice leads to improved ability. You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” 

Deliberate practice is often guided by an expert, skilled coach, or mentor, “someone with an expert eye,” according to bestselling author Daniel Goleman. These coaches and mentors are offering feedback on specific ways to improve, and “without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks. The feedback matters and the concentration does, too – not just the hours.”

So does the 10,000 rule hold up if it’s 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice with experts? No, it still doesn’t. 

 

Practice Makes Perfect… or 25% Perfect

A recent meta-analysis by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues found that deliberate practice and skill are related – but far from perfectly related. Deliberate practice hours predicted 26% of the skill variation in games such as chess, 21% for music, and 18% for sports. This is the second biggest flaw of the 10,000 Rule: It leads to a misconception that anyone can become an expert in a given area by putting in the time. But clearly, since deliberate practice hours predicted only 20-25% of skill levels, there are other factors at play.  Researchers have been able to pinpoint a few of them, including age and genetics.

The age at which someone gets involved in an activity seems to play a role in their ability to achieve mastery. As with language learning, there may be a window during childhood when specific, complex skills are most easily acquired. Cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli found that chess players who started early reached higher skills levels as adults than those who started later, even after taking into account differences in deliberate practice hours.

 

Of course, genetics play a role as well. A lot of the best research on the role of genetics in acquiring certain abilities comes from studying – you guessed it – twins. Psychologist Robert Plomin led research at King’s College London that found more than 15,000 twins in the United Kingdom and had them perform a series of tests and fill out questionnaires – and some of the findings are quite remarkable. Identical twins’ drawing ability was much more highly correlated than fraternal twins’ drawing ability. Since identical twins share 100% of their genes, whereas fraternal twins share only 50%, these findings indicate that differences between people in basic artistic ability is at least in part due to genetics. Using the same data set, over half the variation between skilled and less skilled readers was found to be due to genetics. Another series of studies, led by psychologist Miriam Mosing of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, tested more than 10,000 twins on their basic music abilities, like whether two melodies carry the same rhythm, in relation to how much they have practiced music. What they found is that while genes influenced 38% of the musical abilities they measured, no evidence was found that the amount of practice influenced those abilities. That is to say, an identical twin who practiced music regularly was not any more likely to be good at these abilities than the identical twin who did not practice. This doesn’t mean there’s no point in practicing music. There are certainly music skills that you can improve with practice, like reading music and playing a keyboard. But it does indicate that there are limits to the power of practice. Not everyone could become an expert violinist even with 10,000 hours of practice – and I think I am one of those. There is some innate ability necessary to become a master in a field.

Malcolm Gladwell got one thing right, without a doubt: it takes many years of concerted effort and practice to become a true expert in a field. But while the time spent practicing is important, it is far from the only factor. Your genetic makeup, when you start, and how you learn all combine to determine how many hours it would take you to master a specific craft – or if “mastery” is possible at all.

Consider the research of master chess players by those cognitive psychologists, Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli. They found that there were actually huge differences in the number of hours of practice it took chess players to reach a specific skill level. The number of hours to reach “master” status ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 – meaning some players needed 22x more practice hours than others to reach the same skill level. The 10,000 hour rule is a myth.

Let’s rename it the 728 to 16,120 Hour Rule.

 

Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule: 3 Research-Backed Principles of Practice

If you want to go deeper and learn more about practice, here are some recommended articles:

1 Contrary to decades of bad advice to “leave emotions out of it,” research has made it abundantly clear: Emotions play a critical role in learning. In order to practice and improve most effectively, you must set the ideal biological conditions for learning. Learn why keeping emotions out of it is actually a disaster, and what learning looks like at the neurological level.

2 Mental practice is surprisingly powerful. Whether you’re learning and practicing a new skill, or preparing for a performance, studies have found mental practice to be remarkably effective. To learn more, read Envisioning Success: the Power of Mental Practice.

3 What’s the single biggest factor required to practice, and practice, and keep practicing? Motivation. Without sustainable motivation, the practice loses focus, or we drop it entirely. Practice takes on meaning and relevance when the goal is connected to purpose and long-term values. To learn more about sustaining motivation for yourself and others, check out these articles:

Michael Miller

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