The 10,000 Hours Rule: Fact, Fiction, or Something in Between?

They say that practice makes perfect, but is there such a thing as a perfect amount of practice? According to countless life coaches, social media personalities, and other believers in the so-called “10,000 hours rule,” there is.

According to proponents of the concept, becoming an expert takes serious effort. Specifically, committing the eponymous 10,000 hours of work to a particular activity, craft, skillset, profession, or other area of expertise is what it takes for a person to master it. 

Origins of the 10,000 Hours Rule

The 10,000 hours rule stems from the work of renowned self-help journalist Malcolm Gladwell, long-time staff writer for the New Yorker. In his New York Times bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell examines what separates ordinary people from those who achieve mastery and become experts in their fields.

Gladwell highlights icons of success and accomplishment such as Bill Gates, the Beatles, and even J. Robert Oppenheimer to understand just what it is that makes them outliers. 

One of his core theses is that every one of the outliers practiced a lot to get where they did. Each was able to devote at least 10,000 hours into mastering their craft before they became massive successes. They practiced, learned, and challenged themselves to get better at what they do.

The concept quickly permeated mainstream conversation, inspiring both diehard commitment and sharp criticism from various parties. Of course, many of us would love to become experts in our field and achieve various forms of greatness. But is a ten thousand hour journey the road to get there, or is it just a catchy idea that’s good for selling books?

Why Do We Love the 10,000 Hours Rule So Much?

For many, the idea of the 10,000 hours rule instantly connects, and it’s easy to see why: it democratizes success.

Our celebrity-centric culture sends us constant messages about the inherent magnificence of many famously successful people. When we discuss movie stars, athletes, high-profile CEOs, and elite performers in every niche, the story often focuses on their inherent genius, athleticism, intuition, or talent. 

There is little room in the conversation for the luck, effort, or support systems that contributed to these people’s success in their field of expertise.

While these stories may be engaging, they tend to make an “ordinary” person feel quite small. It sets us up as misfits — if we’re not born geniuses, we will be underdogs from the start.

With the 10,000 hours rule, Gladwell paints a different picture. If success is the result of deliberate effort rather than how a person grew up, then anyone can achieve it. Moreover, it dispels the notion that success, failure, or anything in between is a guaranteed outcome. Instead, it comes down to individual choices, deliberate focus, and dedication.

The Undeniable Magic of Practice

There is no shortage of evidence supporting the idea that intentional practice is a central component in the development of expertise. Many of today’s subject matter experts in learning and growth argue very similar points. 

For instance, in Grit, psychologist Angela Duckworth masterfully outlines through her work in the field how success is a direct result of applied effort. Duckworth, a thought leader and recognized expert in her field, explains that while innate talent plays a role, it works more as a modifier than a central component. Those with natural talent may find results with marginally less effort, but no one can do so without effort.

Bestselling nonfiction author Cal Newport routinely teaches the importance of intense, focused effort. While he asserts that not all effort yields identical results, he also reaffirms that long-term progress requires you to practice.

While participation trophies often attract negative attention, a growing body of data supports the positive impact they can have on this. By adding extrinsic rewards to something as crucial to success as showing up and practicing, participation trophies encourage more kids to continue learning, practicing skills, and growing through repetition of the fundamentals.

Issues With the 10,000 Hours Rule

Gladwell likely never intended his concept of 10,000 hours of effort to become a hard-and-fast rule one must follow. It is more of a guiding principle — achieving success at any scale requires that you practice a skill and push beyond your comfort zone. Success at the scale of a historical outlier requires massive input.

This principle can be a valuable concept. For those who want to achieve something great, believing it is mainly a matter of hard work is an encouraging thought.

However, people gravitate toward numbers. We like concepts we can boil down to something snappy and intuitive. Because of this preference, many treat this magic number as an absolute for anyone who yearns for expert status.

Unfortunately, clinging to the concept in this way can be problematic and bring challenges down the road. So before you start marking up your calendar with 10,000 hours of practice sessions, consider some of the ways this framework comes up short.

Not All Practice Is Created Equal

One of the most widespread critiques of the 10,000 hours rule is that by putting a specific number on it, one can infer it doesn’t matter much how you spend those hours. But, of course, how we spend our time significantly impacts what we get out of it.

For instance, idly flipping through a physics book while watching a TV show in the background may help you absorb some of the material. But, on the other hand, spending that same time in a serious, focused study session will contribute to a much better learning process.

Not every hour of practice is equally valuable.

Athletics make another great example. Consider the difference between a pick-up game at the park, an organized team practice, and a one-on-one session with a coach or trainer. All these things can help a person build their skill and athleticism, but not in the same way or to the same effect.

The concept also leaves little room for activities that may tangentially hone a person’s expertise or abilities, such as:

  • A football player taking dance lessons to improve their coordination
  • A game developer playing games in their free time
  • An event planner organizing a family outing

Each of these can fuel people’s growth in their various domains, but do these hours count toward their 10,000? Unfortunately, oversimplification of the rule leaves little room for this subtlety.

Expertise Isn’t Binary

In the same way that the 10,000 hours rule can oversimplify different types of growth, it can also remove nuance from the idea of expertise.

Some proponents of the rule consider it to create a literal transition point in one’s experience level. Crossing this point makes you an expert; before that, you are still a novice.

Naturally, expertise does not work this way. Being an expert is not a binary proposition. For instance, if you have committed 8,000 hours to becoming a master blacksmith, you will be much more proficient at your craft than average novices. You may even be able to reach master status by this point. However, it’s also possible you still have quite a long way to go. 

There is no arbitrary threshold beyond which you have become an expert. It is a spectrum on which you steadily progress over time. 

The rule teaches us that to master something, we must commit to it. Focusing and practicing will help us reach various goals, but they do so gradually and not always at a fixed pace. Growth is messy and inconsistent, and that is part of what makes it beautiful.

What About Talent?

The 10,000 hours rule has a peculiar relationship with the idea of talent. On the one hand, it dispels the illusion of natural experts. It cures us of the notion that some people were born to be great, and the rest of us just weren’t.

On the other hand, the rigidity of it implies that talent plays no role at all.

As Duckworth’s work unequivocally shows, natural talent plays a role in what a person can achieve. However, it’s a smaller role than we often believe. Effort is the secret ingredient for everyone, but it is still critical to note that talent plus preparation will give some people advantages.

This shortcoming of the rule extends to all types of advantages. While some are born with uncommon talents, others are born into wealth, exceptional support systems, or other forms of privilege. This is not necessarily to anyone’s discredit, but it is crucial to remember.

Massive success in anything demands monumental effort to progress toward it. Of course, anyone is capable of this type of growth, but it cannot go unsaid that there will always be those with advantages that help accelerate their progress.

Practice Isn’t Perfect

In almost all things, deliberate practice offers value beyond measure. If someone seeks to attain skill or expertise in their field, there is no reasonable path without preparation. From violinists to psychologists, and from chess players to engineers.

Such is the relationship of practice and expertise. Far more than a single building block of success, in the end, practice is what makes up most of the structure. 

We build proficiency through effort, experience, and struggle, and the 10,000 concept helps to keep this in perspective. However, as anything approaching a scientific measure, its credibility is shaky at best. By treating the idea as a reminder of the potential of a competent learner, rather than a specific goal line, you can chart a path to fascinating places.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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