The Myth of 10,000 hours

No, you can’t become an expert after 10,000 hours of practice

Often, as children, we are encouraged to believe that if we work hard then we’ll succeed. In reality, this isn’t always the case, yet effort is a major factor in how well we do in the tasks we choose or are given. We can’t all be Mozart or Da Vinci even though we know that Mozart dedicated his life from a very young age to perfecting his craft – he may have had some biological advantage, but it was the hard graft that really produced the results in the end.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has spent a lifetime studying expert performance and investigating ways that we can push learning to the limits. Ericsson places greater emphasis on practice, or more specifically, deliberate practice. His most famous study involved violinists and the techniques they employed to reach high standards of expertise. One very particular finding that arose from the study was that the most accomplished students put in an average of of ten-thousand hours of practice by the time they were twenty. This later led to writer Malcolm Gladwell to propose that this was the average time it takes a person to master any skill – the so-called ten-thousand-hour rule.

But before you begin calculating when you’ll become a skilled guitarist, bear in mind that Gladwell’s ‘rule’ fails to reflect Ericsson’s actual findings, indeed, Ericsson has been somewhat critical of Gladwell’s misinterpretation.

The contention is that there isn’t anything special about ten-thousand-hours. The best students in the study had put in 7,400 hours by the time they were 18, but the seven-thousand-four-hundred hour rule doesn’t really have the same marketing appeal. In addition, ten-thousand was the average, and half the violinists hadn’t even accumulated that amount of hours by the time they reached the age of twenty. What Gladwell perhaps failed to recognise was that Ericsson was investigating a specific type of practice (deliberate practice) while Gladwell viewed all practice as the same. 

However, even the type of practice described by Ericsson might not be as effective as has been claimed. In a 2014 review, academics found that, on average, the amount of deliberate practice accounted for just thirty-four percent of the variance in chess ability. Deliberate practice, therefore, did make a difference, but by nowhere near enough to explain why some players became highly skilled while other didn’t. Furthermore, there was a huge variation in the number of hours of deliberate practice exhibited by different standards of player. For example, grandmasters practiced for between 832 and more than 24,000 hours. Intermediate players actually completed thirteen percent more practice than the grandmasters.

A similar pattern was found with musicians where deliberate practice only accounted for thirty percent of the variance in performance. Again, there were wide variations with some musicians failing to achieve the highest level even when deliberate practice time far exceeded ten-thousand hours. Others achieved the highest level with only modest practice.

A more recent study has reached similar conclusions. In their review of thirty-four studies investigating the practice habits and performance levels of 2765 athletes, the reviewers found that, at the elite level, the amount of practice was not related to performance.

The problems that surround the ten-thousand-hour rule don’t necessarily undermine the effectiveness of deliberate practice, but indicate that there is no magical number of hours that will transform us into a chess grandmaster or a concert pianist.

Teasing out the nuances of these types of study does, however, tell us a little bit about what does make an impact. The age at which we begin to learn a new skill is an important overriding factor and is correlated with expertise. Starting early does seems to make a huge impact on how accomplished people become and we can’t totally rule out the possibility of a critical or sensitive period.

The most important factor (and the one seemingly overlooked by Gladwell) is that deliberate practice is not simply practice. Deliberate practice is designed to achieve a certain goal and consists of individualised training activities usually carried out alone. These activities are designed to improve particular aspects of performance and include individually tailored and structured feedback.

In this respect, advocates aren’t simply saying ‘work hard and practice lots and eventually you’ll be an expert’, they are saying that with effort, hard work, structure, determination and help, you can do pretty well at whatever you put your mind to.

Nevertheless, it’s still perhaps better to play to your strengths, so if you have a particular proclivity towards music, languages or playing chess, it might be perhaps better to hone your expertise here rather than attempt something in which you have little experience. 

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