Why The “10,000 Hour Rule” Isn’t Actually A Rule
My post earlier this week on the validity of the “10,000 hour rule” received a lot of attention, so I thought I would point my readers to this piece by Scott Barry Kaufman, an NYU psychology professor, Scientific American blogger, and author of the forthcoming Ungifted. Kaufman asks:
“While deliberate practice may be an important contributor to expertise, is it also sufficient to carry just anyone all the way to greatness?
Recent research suggests it’s not. David Z. Hambrick and colleagues found that deliberate practice explained about 30% of the variation in performance in the two most widely studied domains in expertise research–chess and music.
On the one hand, this is a very impressive amount of variation explained. Clearly, deliberate practice matters a lot, perhaps trumping any other single personal characteristic. But at the same time, most of the variation was left unexplained by other personal and environmental factors.
But if we dig even deeper, we can see more complications. What is the genetic contribution to the willingness to practice in the first place? While passion and persistence are certainly important for greatness, where do these characteristics come from? Behavioral geneticists have discovered that virtually all psychological dispositions have a heritable basis. Therefore, motivation and the ability to persevere and persist in the face of obstacles are likely influenced (although not completely determined) by genetic factors, which are always interacting with environmental factors.
Another complication is that there seem to be notable exceptions to the 10-year rule. For one, there exist prodigies and savants who seem to display extraordinary ability, even at an expert level, well before the requisite 10 years. In some cases, such as the savant who sits down at the piano and starts playing tunes, talent seems to emerge without any deliberate practice whatsoever!
What has become clear is that the 10-year rule is not actually a rule, but an average with significant variation around the mean. In fact, in some domains within the arts and sciences, those with the greatest lifetime productivity and highest levels of achieved eminence required the least amount of time to acquire the requisite expertise.
However, there are some fields, such as creative writing, where there doesn’t appear to be an early advantage to achieving greatness, and if anything there may require on average an additional 10 years after professional-level expertise is acquired to achieve greatness.
An even further complication is that too much expertise can be detrimental to greatness. Research shows that experts are at risk of becoming overly specialized and inflexible in their thinking, although the disadvantages of over-training can be overcome by acquiring expertise across numerous, diverse domains.” (Read more here.)
I’m really glad that Kaufman has made this effort to complicate our understanding of the “10,000 hour rule.” It’s one of those compulsively repeatable cultural memes that is both wildly oversimplified and also the repository of a kernel of truth.