Expert in 10,000 Hours? Maybe Not

For those of us who’ve long felt skeptical of the “10,000 hour rule”—the idea that anyone can become an expert in any domain with 10,000 hours of practice—confirmation of our doubts has arrived in a forthcoming article in the journal Intelligence, titled “Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?” Here, the authors’ takeaway:

“Two myths regarding deliberate practice and expert performance have taken root in the public’s imagination. The first myth is that people require very similar amounts of deliberate practice to acquire expert performance. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers that Anders Ericsson et al.’s ‘research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.’

Similarly, Matthew Syed wrote in Bounce that ‘top performers had devoted thousands of additional hours to the task of becoming master performers. But that’s not all. Ericsson also found that there were no exceptions to this pattern: nobody who had reached the elite group without copious practice, and nobody who had worked their socks off but failed to excel.’

Such categorical claims are incorrect. The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.

The second myth is that it requires at least ten years, or 10,000 hours, of deliberate practice to reach an elite level of performance. Ericsson et al. explained this idea as
follows: ‘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.’

Subsequently, Gladwell proposed in Outliers that ‘ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.’ More recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that ‘studies of chess masters have shown that at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice . . . are required to attain the highest levels of performance.’

But the data indicate that there is an enormous amount of variability in deliberate practice—even in elite performers. One player in Gobet and Campitelli’s chess sample took 26 years of serious involvement in chess to reach a master level, while another player took less than 2 years to reach this level.

Some normally functioning people may never acquire expert performance in certain domains, regardless of the amount of deliberate practice they accumulate. In Gobet and Campitelli’s chess sample, four participants estimated more than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and yet remained intermediate-level players. This conclusion runs counter to the egalitarian view that anyone can achieve most anything he or she wishes, with enough hard work.

The silver lining, we believe, is that when people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and of the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities, they may gravitate towards domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.” (PDF available here.)

If you’re interested in reading more about the flaws of anyone-can-be-great-at-anything books, I recommend this incisive review by Ann Hulbert in Slate. Hulbert shrewdly identifies the forces behind the popularity of such tomes:

“Start with two urgent social concerns—that America is falling behind in the global talent race and that inequality is rising at home. Add some nifty research from cutting-edge labs (about neurons, genes, and the acquisition of expertise). Factor in the Gladwellian model of publicizing such findings in mega-best-sellers that blend upstart argument, cool data, and irresistible anecdotes—and you have a boomlet.”

What do you make of the 10,000 hour rule and its popularity?

27 Responses to “Expert in 10,000 Hours? Maybe Not”

  1. Susan Cohen says:

    And, I’ve often wondered if all hours of practice are equal? Might there be tricks, teaching methodologies and such that enable time compressed learning? or is every hour of deliberate practice exactly the same as another hour?

  2. Fred Z says:

    I haven’t had enough time to become expert in it.

  3. Ben Nesvig says:

    I’ve been reading “The First 20 Hours” by Josh Kaufman where he talks about the 10,000 hour rule. While it may take 10,000 hours to become a world class expert, give or take depending on practice methods and natural talents, Kaufman argues that it generally takes only 20 hours of deliberate practice to become proficient in most skills.

    In addition to 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, I also think there has to be some deeply rooted curiosity in the field. If you don’t have a naturally passion for it, you may become good, but likely never achieve that top level, no matter how much you practice.

    • Eric Nelson says:

      20 hours is not enough practice to be proficient at anything worth being proficient at. If I want to be proficient at running (and I would say running a sub 5 minute mile is proficient but not elite, even at a young age, it would take me at least 3 months of 5 or 6 day a week runs of 30 to 60 minutes or more each before I can be at this level of fitness. And that’s assuming I have a fair amount of talent!

      • Sign says:

        Hey man,
        I think you’re confusing fitness level with skill. The 20 hour proficiency mark purely relates to technique. So therefore, in your example, you could learn how to run (from scratch) with the correct technique with 20 hours of (perfect) practice. Anyone (in theory) should be able to do this. Times and distances are dictated by fitness level which is completely separate from skills and abilities. That’s my take on it anyway.

    • Douglas McFarland says:

      That is ridiculous. I could not imagine any person spending 20 hours practicing typing, guitar, programming, chess, mechanics, engineering, carpentry, math, writing, cooking, spelling etc. etc. etc. being considered proficient at any of those skills even prodigies let alone average people. You need to keep your skeptical hat on at all times lest you propose asinine things like average people can become proficient at things with 20 hours of practice. Normally I would research a claim to determine if it had any merit but your claim is so beyond the pale of reasonableness that it requires no consideration.

  4. Robnonstop says:

    The actual practice might explain the differences. Also important is what experience they had in advance to officially starting their year long phase of Deliberate Practice. There will always be a market for books that give us an excuse for why we shouldn’t try certain things but there are also always people who proof again and again that with a good strategy, a clear goal and enough time you can pretty much become excellent at anything, given physical requirements such as body size are met.

  5. Sean Kearns says:

    A couple of quick thoughts.

    At 30,000 feet, we can categorize domains in two ways (1) mature systems, and (2) evolving systems.

    Mature systems have a highly developed framework of rules. Examples of mature systems include: baseball, chess, surgery, classical music, writing, etc.

    Evolving systems have a set of rules that are not yet formed. Mark Zuckerburg became an “expert” at building a social network far sooner than 10,000 hours. Not because of his talent, but because few people new the rules, the rules were dynamic, and Mark figured them out.

    I’ve never seen a credible example of a person becoming an expert in a mature system in significantly less than 10,000 hours.

    As for sitting down at a piano and playing at a high level right away, it doesn’t happen. Those are fables. Exhibit A: Mozart had 10,000 hours of practice at a very early age. He was not a “prodigy.” The book “Moon Walking With Einstein” by Joshua Foyer does a good job of supporting the idea that prodigies don’t exist.

    The prodigy illusion is caused partly by fake experts. Lots of people become fake experts in less than 10,000 hours. Tim Ferris is the icon for fake expertise.

    The prodigy illusion is also caused by non-experts watching experts. YouTube is filled with 11 year old guitar players who are “prodigies.” To a non-guitar player, these children sound amazing. To Eric Clapton, these children are simply age-impressive. They’re not great. And if a child is truly great, like Sungha Jung, then dig a little deeper. You’ll find that these “prodigies” have been practicing for a long, long, long, time. The prodigy label is just marketing.

    So the rule is: Mature systems = 10,000 hours to expertise. Evolving Systems = less time to expertise.

    As to the other question: Why do some people focus and practice for long periods of time? Most agree there is a combination of nature and nurture at work. I think the best research supports the idea that practice comes mostly from nurture. Bad research (driving confirmation bias) suggests that people have “talent” that allows them to focus for long periods of time.

    I think we’d be closer to the truth if every time a person said (or wrote) the word “talent,” the word “practice” was inserted instead.

    Sean

    • terryg says:

      Great example of the young guitarists, as that’s an area in which I have some experience and expertise. Some of these kids have amazing technical ability, but zero “feel” for what they’re playing. They need the time to internalize, to incubate, the so-called “space between the notes” where it is said that the “Music” truly exists. Occasionally however, you’ll see someone truly “grooving” the line/piece, possibly even coupled with decent technical skill; the problem is that it’s impossible to tell just how deep this supposed prodigal talent goes without seeing them play a wide variety of things, or how comfortable they are with differing styles (- style or genre doesn’t matter, “Groove” exists in ALL musical forms). It’s very easy to become an expert in a musical thing, without 10,000 hours, but that’s a far cry from being a musical (or instrumental) “Expert”.

  6. Sean Kearns says:

    P.S. I just read the study by David Hambrick et al. One huge problem: The study doesn’t control for different types of practice. In other words, the study assumes that all intensive practice is the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The study finds that 30% of expertise is attributable to deliberate practice. What if they isolated hours of deliberate practice with an expert coach? How about hours of deliberate practice with the right framework of rules. Or hours of deliberate practice at new skills?

    David Habrick has found LOVE (left out variable error).

    • gwern says:

      One huge problem: The study doesn’t control for different types of practice. In other words, the study assumes that all intensive practice is the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      If you read the study, you’d notice it’s using Ericsson’s own data.

      What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

      • Sean Kearns says:

        Hi Gwern, I’ve just read your comment for the first time. Here’s an article for you:

        http://solutionfocusedchange.blogspot.com/2011/12/do-recent-publications-prove-anders.html

        And here’s a comparison.

        Anders Ericsson was the lead editor for “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” published in 2006. This book has over 1,000 pages of academic findings by a large number of researchers. And Ericsson has been producing and interpreting expertise data for more than 40 years. His conclusion is that across domains, people who become experts have practiced deliberately for a long period of time.

        David Hambrick manipulated other peoples data (for chess players) to draw this conclusion: Ericsson is right about deliberate practice, it is required. And innate talent also matters.

        So for this particular debate, which man is the expert? Whose work should you share with an adult who hasn’t’ found their calling?

        Whose work should you share with a child?

        • sim says:

          Hey Sean, would you mind expanding on how Hambrick manipulated/cherry-picking the data? I understand Gwern’s counterpoint but not yours.

          I myself wish that deliberate practice is all (or most) it takes to get to the top, but still doesn’t have definitive proof. Maybe you can recommend any paper I should read up on.

  7. Chris Martin says:

    Gladwell himself has noted (at his SPSP 2011 talk for instance) that he oversimplified research findings because no one will read his books otherwise, and that’s a sacrifice that any popular author has to make and be comfortable with.

    Among professional psychologists, it’s common knowledge that no effect holds for everyone all of the time. That’s why they rely on effect sizes to figure out how much of an effect is explained by the factor in question.

  8. Janis says:

    I know the belief is that you can be a prodigy in anything you wish with enough practice, but you know what? You have to wish it with everything you have. People have no idea how deeply that wish has to be felt. You have to be obsessed to the point where you’re thinking about it all the time. Sure, your kid might be forced to practice as much as Yo-Yo Ma was, but the thing about Ma is that he spent as much time thinking about playing cello when he wasn’t even in the same room as the thing.

    When you see an average person pushed to play cello by their parents, or who doesn’t really want it as much as they say they do, sitting on the couch and staring into space, they are thinking about TV or what they’re going to eat next. When you see Ma sitting on a couch and staring into space, he’s solving a problem on the cello in his head.

    Most people long to BE something, not to DO something. There’s a big, big difference. People who say they want to “be” pianists have this dream of a jet-setting life, winning competitions, being better than everyone else, making their parents happy, impressing people … the only thing they don’t seem to fantasize about is actually sitting down and banging away on the thing and constantly thinking of ways to get better on it.

    If you aren’t spending your free time thinking about that and lusting for it, your wish isn’t deep enough. You have to hunger for the verb more than the noun.

  9. Dr. Perna says:

    I hope that people do not read this brief as saying that the 10,000 Hour Rule is not true. When reading the argument, we all must remember the statement “…when people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and of the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities, they may gravitate towards domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.” The 10,000 Hour Rule does work. But, people who have innate skill and love for a specific task must practice for 10,000 hours to achieve excellence. Both Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are proof of this in the world of athletics. They both loved the game of basketball first. Secondly, they both had certain natural skills. Thirdly, the spent well over 10,000 hours practicing in order to achieve their levels of excellence.

    When schools begin to uncover natural skills and then develop curriculum around the varied skills of students, we will again lead the world. As long as we think that the No Child Left Behind mentality of making students spend 10,000 hours preparing for just two or three types of tests, we will continue to leave many gifted young people in the back seats of the bus.

  10. Chris says:

    I always felt like the 10,000 hour rule seemed a little far-fetched. In my own school experiences, as well as in an internship at other schools, I saw students who never had to study succeed and the most studious who failed. Everyone’s mind is different and learns at a different rate. It’s also really difficult to tell when you’ve become an “expert” at something.

    • Eric Nelson says:

      10,000 hours is very reasonable. Let’s say you want to be an elite or expert musician. You start playing the French horn at age 10 like my daughter and are now 17. She has practiced about 2 to 3 hours a week for most of this time. That’s 52 x 7 x 2 which is only a bit over 700 hours. I would say she is proficient at her instrument. However, if she wanted to be able to play in a metropolitan symphony she would need to practice about 4 hours each day for at least 5 or 6 more years to be at that level of musicianship, and she has natural ability in reading music and an excellent ear. Now we are talking about another 5000 hours of deliberate practice. Is 10,000 hours too much. It depends on the level of the expert. However, I would estimate at least 5000 hours and that’s on the low end.

  11. Robert Watts says:

    I reject the premise of this entire debate.

    I NEVER read Gladwell or Ericsson to be saying that 10,000 hours guaranteed you will become a master or even particularly good at a field. My dad practiced the piano for years and years and loved it and he made fun of himself, because he just couldn’t get very good at it.

    I could spend 20,000 hours on cosmology and math and I’m not going to be a math prodigy. No one thinks that time alone will get you to the Michael Jordan level or the NBA level to take basketball as one example. Am I missing something?

    I took it as a rough guideline of the amount of practice that people who had natural talent in the field needed to fully unveil their talent. And my reading of Michael Jordan’s history, for example, shows that he did put in some serious hours of practice. But the practice interacted with his natural talent and determination. And determination is a factor here.

    And of course, some people learn faster than others. That’s basic … I don’t know that we need to restate that in every article. Who thinks we all learn at the exact same pace? … The problem gets juicy, however, when we consider that not only do people learn at different paces, but some people quickly master X aspect of their craft/field through their learning vs. other people who quickly master Y aspect of their learning and field.

    And the matter gets more juicy still because some people can study for a long time and if you were to measure/assess them, they wouldn’t seem impressive at all … But a few years later, something comes together and they show themselves to be quite impressive in their fields.

    I had a close friend who was a tango teacher. She learned Tango super fast in group lessons. She herself became a private lesson teacher because Tango is so hard to learn via group lessons. But my buddy was a super fast learner, obviously had some type of gift at Tango. Interesting, she traced her gifts with Tango back to her training as a gymnast when she was young. She said gymnastics taught her how to move her body in complex and subtle ways.

    Even so, my buddy thought to become a true Tango master, she would need the hours and hours of practice talked about here …

    • realtalkbean says:

      Right. It definitely depends on what you practice and how you practice it. If your goal was to be the best piano player in the world, you would have to practice multiple things at once — sight reading, playing blindfolded, keeping time, chord progressions, theory, composing, playing two different songs at the same time (one on each hand), etc. And the ‘deliberate’ part of this practice would entail charting the progress of each of these key skills and always constantly trying to improve upon them. I don’t want to slight your father but his practice was likely not as deliberate as you had understood it to be.

      If, however, he’d only wished to play one song particularly well, I’m sure after 10,000 of practicing it, he’d be peerless!

  12. anonymous says:

    I think that the 10,000 hour rule has to be taken in moderation. 10,000 hours of hula-hooping can’t be compared to 10,000 hours of chess. Also, you can think of all the people that spend 10,000 hours and never achieve master level and vice-versa.

    How do you define greatness? Because greatness isn’t just hard work, or talent on its own. They need to be in harmony, along with love. Combine those three, and after 10 years you get greatness for sure.

    And even if you don’t reach greatness then, you’ll be pretty close.

  13. Bruce says:

    An individual’s personal passion has much to do with how “quickly” they master a topic. Of course this will vary from person to person. Then add in natural talents and natural god-given gifts. I have met people who knew exactly what they wanted to do in life by the time they were 12 years old while most of us figure it out over time. I think there are many variables that make an expert.

  14. TPK says:

    First, read Ericsson’s research. Then, read the related research. Then, see if any comments above, including especially those of the blogger, are meaningful.

  15. KoisanX says:

    In the general understanding, the assumption is more true than not. Exceptionally talented people could achieve some success without copious practice, but even then motor skills still require additional honing – especially in the case of a musician.

    I do not believe that the time difference could be as extreme as 20hrs vs 10000 – would love to see the data and methodology 1st.

    In my biased view as engineer and musician – 10 years is about right; most experts with less experience typically reveal themselves as not being…expert!

  16. Douglas McFarland says:

    I have not read these books. However I am a big fan of practice. I tutor children sometimes and I have never met a child that didn’t need to practice in order to improve their skills and abilities. Some children seem to catch on more quickly than others in certain topics and this is always due to an intense personal interest in the subject. It is easy to practice things to which one is drawn which is why people are recognized as being strong in some areas and weak in others by my anecdotal observations.

    Even if you are attracted to an area of endeavor to which you don’t have innate talent simply being attracted to it and practicing is enough to make it more worthwhile than pursuing something you aren’t interested in. Whatever endeavor one undertakes it will take practicing in order to have any chance at doing it professionally. So even if it turns out that after 10,000 hours of challenging practice you can’t compete with the giants in your chosen field you can at least participate in something that interests you.

    Why knock practice?

  17. Fred says:

    I like how you didn’t waste any time with sources or facts. I think it makes for more interesting arguments when you refute Nobel prize winners with statements like, “The evidence is quite clear” without actually bothering with any evidence.

    Cool stuff.

    • anniempaul says:

      Fred, please note that the line “The evidence is quite clear” is a quote from the author of the journal article, Zach Hambrick—not me. Hambrick is a professor at Michigan State University if you’d like to take your snide attitude there.

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