Few ideas about learning are as well-known as the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, where he argued that it takes roughly that long to master a skill.
The basis for Gladwell’s rule was Anders Ericsson’s 1993 paper arguing that large quantities of deliberate practice could explain world-class skill levels. Before that, psychologist John Hayes’s research on elite composers, artists and poets found roughly ten years were necessary to produce master-level works.
As with many popularizations of academic research, the public understanding of the rule is at odds with the actual research used to generate it.
What the 10,000-Hour Rule Gets Wrong About the Research
The most common misunderstanding of the 10,000-hour rule was the assumption that time spent simply using the skill was what ultimately mattered.
Clearly, this is absurd. Anyone who performs a skill as their full-time job will eventually accumulate ten thousand hours of sustained use. Yet very few musicians, artists, athletes or chess players perform at a truly world-class level. Consider an example from classical music: Tens of thousands of violinists play full-time in professional orchestras, yet there is only a handful of violin virtuosos. The rarity of world-class performance implies that just doing something a lot cannot be sufficient.
Ericsson argued that it wasn’t just any practice that led to mastery, deliberate practice was the key. That meant strenuous training under the helpful eye of an experienced coach. Just playing music wasn’t enough, it was necessary to practice the challenging sections repeatedly, with a skilled coach offering guidance on exactly what to pay attention to in order to improve.
This isn’t a subtle distinction. A popular view of skill development is that extensive practice assists learning by making mental actions increasingly automatic. Thus, you learn to read by first painstakingly recognizing the letters, then identifying them easily, until finally, you’re not even aware you’re recognizing the letters at all—you simply read the text.
But automaticity can also be a curse. When a skill is completely fluent, you aren’t able to consciously monitor your performance and make necessary adjustments. Deliberate practice is an effortful activity designed to bring elements of skills back under intentional control to override automatic habits.
But Is the Underlying Research Even True?
Ericsson’s research argued deliberate practice, not just doing something a lot, was what counted towards the ten thousand hours. But is that even true?
Ericsson’s research has faced at least two lines of critique over the years since it has become well known.
The first critique concerns Ericsson’s emphasis on practice over talent. In his view, if large quantities of effortful practice could explain world-class performance, why do we need the residual concept of talent? However, other psychologists disagree, arguing that learning rates often differ between individuals in ways that can’t be explained simply by practice alone.
I think the safest interpretation of the research to date is that natural ability and deliberate practice interact. Nobody becomes world-class without practice, but even ideal coaching and practice conditions will not result in everyone learning at an identical rate. Since world-class performance is at an extreme end of a distribution, the result is that most exceptional people are both extremely talented and incredibly hard-working. Those who are merely one or the other don’t make the cut.
(As a practical matter, this is primarily an issue for elite levels of skills. I think practice tends to matter more for skills you want to be “decent” at because it’s easier to compensate for lack of talent by working harder. But if everyone is working their hardest, as we would expect in the elite of a field, then hard work necessarily plays a smaller role in accounting for the differences.)
Another critique argues that quantity of practice doesn’t actually account for much of the variance in elite performance across fields. This survey finds that practice volume explains only a paltry 26% for games, 21% in music, and a dismal 1% in professional attainment.
Ericsson has mounted counterarguments to both of these attacks. My understanding of his position on talent is that most abilities are modifiable through sufficient practice (never arguing everyone will learn equally fast). He has also written a rebuttal to the finding that deliberate practice doesn’t explain much by arguing that the studies reviewed mix deliberate practice and time spent simply using the skill.1
My view is that the deliberate practice hypothesis is a compelling and useful mental model for approaching skill development, but both innate ability and factors outside of practice likely also play a role. Reality is complicated. Go figure.
A Deeper, Commonsense Critique of 10,000 Hours Being Necessary for Mastery
But, to me, all of this is beside the point. The 10,000-hour rule cannot be a rule of learning simply because it describes a social phenomenon, not a cognitive one. Let me explain.
A world-class performer in a field isn’t defined by some objective level of skill but by how they compare to other practitioners. Being ranked as an elite chess player isn’t based on some objective measure of chess ability; rather it’s an implicit comparison to all other chess players.
Ericsson himself cites evidence that musicians have gotten better over the centuries, as instruction has begun earlier and more successful teaching and practice approaches have developed. 2
He cites songs considered unplayable by their composers, which have since been performed by increasingly adroit performers.
Similar advances in human performance can be seen across many fields, from athletics to chess to video games. Since objective levels of ability have risen over time, the bar for what constitutes “elite” performance is continuously rising.
Because world-class performance is a social comparison, the quantity of practice (or talent) needed to achieve it depends entirely on how much other people invest in the skill. A more competitive field, all else being equal, requires more time to master simply because there are more people who have invested large quantities of deliberate practice time.
Consider two fields, one with 100 performers and another with 100,000 performers. Suppose that practice time in the field follows some regular distribution, and practice is the sole variable explaining attainment. To be in the top ten (10%) for the first field will necessarily require a lot less practice than to be in the top ten (0.01%) for the second, simply because the latter is a much more rarefied group.
Of course, practice probably isn’t the only variable for attainment. Additionally, some fields encourage many people to devote their entire lives to pursuing excellence, whereas, other fields aren’t highly valued in our society, so nobody invests much time trying to get good at them outside of a few obsessive enthusiasts.
Thus, the real formula for world-class talent would need to consider:
- How many people practice in the field.
- The distribution of deliberate practice quantity by people in the field. (Some fields may inspire more devotion than others.)
- The cut-off for being considered “world-class” or “elite” in performance.
- The relative contribution of practice and other variables (e.g., random chance, innate talent, political favoritism, etc.) to success.
For skills where there are consistent returns to practice, large quantities of practitioners who generally practice a lot, and a high bar for being considered “world-class,” the amount of practice needed to achieve mastery would likely be a lot more than 10,000 hours.
In contrast, for skills that rely mostly on talent or luck, have few practitioners, little devotion to practice, and modest thresholds for success, the amount of practice needed to reach elite levels might be quite modest.
Implications for Mastery
- The 10,000-hour rule only applies to deliberate practice, not just using the skill a lot.
- Talent probably matters, even if practice does, too.
- The amount of variance explained by practice in different fields likely varies, but it’s certainly not 100%.
- “Elite” or “world-class” are social comparisons. Thus, reaching them implicitly requires you to do more than your competitors. Fields with fewer performers, less devotion and lower returns to continued practice will see elite performers with less training.
While I’ve long been a fan of the research the 10,000-hour rule was built upon, I’m skeptical that the rule itself provides much practical value in the pursuit of mastery.
- It’s also possible that the low correlation between practice and professional achievement indicates that many professionals don’t do much practice!
- Lehmann, Andreas C., and K. Anders Ericsson. “Historical developments of expert performance: Public performance of music.” Genius and the mind (1998): 67-94.