Why The “10,000 Hour Rule” Isn’t Actually A Rule

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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.


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7 Responses to “Why The “10,000 Hour Rule” Isn’t Actually A Rule”

  1. Trevor King says:

    This article reminded me of advice offered to aspiring writers in a recent interview with David Benioff, the Co-Creator, Writer, and Executive Producer of HBO’s Game of Thrones (and a Dartmouth alum!):

    “Benioff’s other main piece of advice for aspiring writers was that persistence and practice is key.

    “I was the farthest thing from a prodigy,” Benioff said.

    Benioff’s hard work paid off, but he also acknowledged that sometimes a little bit of chance is needed.

    “Don’t quit and be lucky.”


    As a young writer, Benioff said he learned from his failures.

    In college, he was rejected admission to the introductory creative writing class three times, and one novel he wrote during his twenties was rejected more than 30 times.

    “I really thought this book was gonna change everything and it got rejected by everyone,” Benioff said. “I actually met with one of the editors and he said ‘you know I’ve always believed there are no narrative prodigies… there are very few novelists who are good at an early age.’”

    Benioff’s success came once he realized that he needed to focus himself on a different type of story unlike the 700-page novel he had been trying to publish.

    “I needed something much shorter that I could control,” Benioff said. “’25th Hour’ came from that.”

    His novel was eventually adapted into a movie, which Benioff himself wrote the screenplay for.

    “I never thought I’d be a screenwriter,” Benioff said.

    Benioff soon went on to write other screenplays for films, such as “Stay,” “Troy” and “The Kite Runner.”

  2. 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.


    • Ken Berian says:

      Hey Sean Kearns, great posts re deliberate practice, Habrick study, etc. Thank you! I have one quibble. I used to be down on Tim Ferriss, too, but I was wary that I might be dismissing some worthwhile information with ad hominem objections. After all, many of his millions of fans are as decent and intelligent as I like to consider myself. So I read his blog and watched some of his videos.

      While I’m still not a big fan – some ad hominem objections remain – I do think that “icon for fake expertise” is a serious mischaracterization. While Ferriss certainly is an uber-master of self-promotion, I’ve never found him claiming any real expertise for himself, always giving full credit and huge exposure – in fact, often as a guest author – to the generally accomplished people whose work he cites or experiments with.

      Yes, he is anything but restrained or careful, so inevitably he must’ve made some big mistakes. But he also seems resolute in support of scientific principles and empiricism, plus some progressive humanitarian values. I don’t see any evidence of fake expertise there.

      • Sean Kearns says:

        Dear Ken Berian,

        I just re-read my blog post from May 2013, and I agree with you Ken. I should not have characterized Tim Ferris as the icon of fake expertise.

        Here’s the point I was trying to make. Tim Ferris, who wrote a book about cooking, is less a cooking expert than tens of thousands of professional cooks. For example, if you threw Mr. Ferris in a kitchen at a major restaurant, he would look like a total novice.

        However, Tim Ferris is an expert at writing popular books. And he is an expert at online self-promotion. So Mr. Ferris cannot be the icon of fake expertise.

        I apologize to Mr. Ferris.

        Sean Kearns

  3. 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).

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