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?