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The 10,000 Hour Rule

Here’s another really interesting piece of information from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. One of his chapters that I like is on the “10,000 Hour Rule.” I’ve encountered this rule before and, from both personal and professional experience, I have come to believe it is true. The basic idea is what separates “experts” from novices and moderately skilled people, in whatever endeavor (e.g., chess, musical proficiency, language fluency, programming, math, painting, pottery, golf, martial arts), is practice – a lot of it.

There has been this myth propagated in society that people who achieve great things or who are very successful at something usually have some innate ability or talent that others lack. Research does not bear this out. Basically, people who are “experts” have typically put in lots of practice – approximately 10,000 hours of it. That comes out to 20 hours per week for 10 years. If you pick an area and put that much time into getting good at it, you will become an expert.

Now, this doesn’t work out for every situation. We can think of some funny examples in which this would not happen. For instance, if you take up rock climbing at age 75, odds are you won’t be one of the world’s top rock climbers even after 10,000 hours of practice at age 85 because you are up against father time. He can be a brute. (Well, you might be one of the top 85-year-old rock climbers in the world!). Still, the principle holds true in most cases.

Although our brains are more “plastic” (i.e., malleable) when we are very young, the reason kids and teens can get so good at certain endeavors is because they are able to put in those 10 years of practice. It’s very difficult at age 25 to start something like…ping pong or chess, let’s say…and put in 20 hours of practice per week for 10 years. Young adults are too busy with finishing college, getting their careers going, and getting married/starting a family.

It is true that people are born with certain aptitudes that might make them a “better” expert than someone with more moderate innate ability, given that they both put in 10,000 hours of practice and all other things are equal (e.g., quality of coaches/teachers, access to equipment/facilities). Still, those differences are likely to be quite small. Let me illustrate this with the following example:

Let’s compare a girl with tremendous innate athletic ability at age 5 (let’s call her Sarah) with another girl (also age 5) of average innate athletic ability (let’s call her Mary). Let’s say that Sarah jumps from sport to sport and never really dedicates herself to any one sport. Mary, on the other hand, takes up tennis at age 5 and puts in 10,000 hours of practice over the next 10 years. Now Sarah and Mary are both 15 and they go head-to-head in a tennis match. Who’s going to win? Despite Sarah’s greater innate athletic ability, Mary’s practice is going to totally trump her. Mary will win this tennis match 6-0, 6-0. If we switched out musical ability or mathematical ability for athletic ability, the same results will happen.

So, the moral of this story? As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” Well, not perfect – I’m a crusader against perfectionism. But, practice will make you an expert – provided that you do a lot of it.

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