Really? An Expert in 10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell

It seems everyone is talking about the 10,00 hour rule these days. Let’s dig a little deeper.

One of the best journalists of our time and a favorite author of mine, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of an expert being someone who devotes 10,000 hours of his time to the mastery of a skill. He also illustrates throughout the book that no one achieves success solely based on their intelligence or talent, but rather whether they were born at the right time with the proper support along the way and the proper time investment.

This claim was originally published by Ericsson in “The Making of an Expert” where he begins by differentiating between time spent deliberately practicing and time spent using heuristics or unfocused. Then he sites his own research:

“Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.”

Ericsson points out that another key to success is the synergy with a coach or mentor. These three ideas (deliberate practice, greater than 10,000 hours spent, and successful coaching) are integral to the creation of an expert. But they did not find that 10,000 hours was the “magic number for greatness” that Gladwell claims.

A more recent study published on this subject was at Michigan State University by Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. He too, focused on musicians and other performers because of the quantitative nature of their work. He found that reanalyzed data from 14 studies of top chess players and musicians. They found that for musicians, only 30% of the variance in their rankings as performers could be accounted for by how much time they spent practicing. And in chess players, practicing was only credited with 34% of their level of player. While one player became a grandmaster in as few as two years; another achieved that level only after 26 years.

Hambrick says his goal in conducting the research was to expose some of the complexities of the interaction between practice and proficiency, and with his latest results, he hopes to fight unrealistic expectations fostered by theories like the “10,000-hour rule.”

I remember nearly a decade of my piano teacher grilling: “practice makes perfect” into my head. Well, there is some contention: today, I am still a terrible pianist. But what we can learn from these three sources is that hard work, focus, and circumstance do seem to be the three pillars to mastery.