Most of us have heard of the 10,000 hours rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.
The 10,000 Hours Argument
Malcolm proposes that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field. Deliberate practice by the way? That means practicing in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible.
We already have three questions and we’re only a paragraph in to this article.
- What does it mean to be world-class?
- What impact does talent, genetics, how we grew up and so on have on our results?
- How would it feel to be pushing your skill set as much as possible?
I know world class looks like Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Jay-Z and J.K. Rowling and that their talent levels are off the charts. But what about all the world class people I’ve never heard of? What do they look like? And how much is their success down to hard work and talent and how much to the luck of being noticed, or being in the right place at the right time?
Then we have pushing your skill set as much as possible? How on earth do you measure that? It is by quantity of effort? Hours spent? Or is it by how much we struggle to move forward? How little we achieve for our efforts? Is it our level of focus on the task and a refusal to be distracted? Results? Do we measure our deliberate practice when learning a new language by how quickly we progress?
Put all of this together and I’m not sure how helpful this rule is at all. The idea of investing 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 5 years to become world class at playing the piano when I don’t have the answers to these questions? And at the end? I’m sure I’d be good, but world class? Do I have the musical talent? You wouldn’t think so if you’d seen me dance.
All in all I’ve basically come around to the idea that the 10,000 hours rule is an impediment to progress and a brake on our aspirations. Why? Because I’m certain it’s caused plenty of people to give up before they even got started.
The Counter Argument
Not everyone is a Gladwell fan, In fact I’d say he gets under the skin of plenty people. Business Insider refer to him as a pop psych writer. Ouch! And researchers at Princeton University in a meta review of the literature demonstrated that the 10,000 hours effect is not as universal or as impactful as you might expect. In fact in some fields they rate the difference in performance as being as low as 1%.
What accounts for the difference in what Gladwell saw in his examples and the findings of the Princeton study? The best answer might be the stability of the field, in others words the fixed nature of the game. Scrabble players become world class because the rules never change so they know exactly what’s needed to excel. Learn as many Scrabble words as you can and play as much as possible to get into the skill of maximising your use of your Scrabble vocabulary for point scoring.
In less stable fields, where the rules are less fixed, or are emerging, or barely exist, then practice plays much less of a role. Instagram might be the perfect example of this. World class here means followers and for many monetisation of those followers. The individuals who do best are young. They have something to say, a way of saying it and no doubt, the good fortune to be noticed. What they don’t have is 10,000 hours of practice.
When you start something new you have to go through pain. There’s no way to avoid it. Perhaps the biggest challenge most of us face is noticing our progress amidst the pain of the mistakes we’re making, the frustration we encounter and the embarrassment we might feel if any of this happens in public. At the start progress can be so slow as to be imperceptible and so we just experience pain, not learning, not skill building, not satisfaction.
The miracle of learning is in the accumulation of all of these imperceptible gains. The day you wake up and you notice for the first time that the gap between where you started and where you are now is suddenly big enough to cause you a jolt of satisfaction. That might take you an hour if you are playing Scrabble, a week if you are learning French or a month if you are figuring out how to grow a plant from seed.
Building that understanding into your expectations is a vital part of setting yourself up for success. You won’t be world class but you will be smarter, more skilled and crucially you’ll be more than satisfied with yourself that you’re on the journey and making progress.
We don’t need to invest 10,000 hours in anything to learn enough to add to our skillset. And we don’t need to be anywhere near world class to get huge value from the new skills we acquire. Just by making a decision to start, by learning enough to start doing, by doing enough to want more learning and persisting until we see our skills develop we’re on a path of growth most of us won’t ever want to get off.