10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All

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There are many roads to greatness, but logging 10,000 hours of practice to help you perfect a skill may not be sufficient.

Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness,” regardless of a person’s natural aptitude. With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. It was just a matter of putting in the time.

But in the years since Gladwell first pushed the “10,000-hours rule,” researchers have engaged in a spirited debate over what that rule entails. It’s clear that not just any practice, but only dedicated and intensive honing of skills that counts. And is there magic in that 10,000th hour?

In an attempt to answer some of these questions, and to delve further into how practice leads to mastery, Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and his colleagues decided to study musicians and chess players. It helps that both skills are amenable to such analysis because players can be ranked almost objectively. So in their research, which was published in the journal Intelligence, they reanalyzed data from 14 studies of top chess players and musicians. They found that for musicians, only 30% of the variance in their rankings as performers could be accounted for by how much time they spent practicing. For chess players, practice only accounted for 34% of what determined the rank of a master player.

“We looked at the two most widely studied domains of expertise research: chess and music,” says Hambrick. “It’s clear from this data that deliberate practice doesn’t account for all, nearly all or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music.” Two-thirds of the difference, in fact, was unrelated to practice. And while one player took two years to become a grandmaster; another achieved that level only after 26 years, giving them huge variance in the hours of practice they did.

(MORE: Making Choices: How Your Brain Decides)

How did Hambrick come up with the percentages? He and his colleagues simply correlated the relationships between reported practice and rankings — and determined how much of the difference among performers related to practice hours. The research did not investigate the other factors involved in determining success.

So do the results suggest that the untalented among us are doomed to mediocrity? Fortunately, not everyone believes we should be so quick to discount the value of practice. Not surprisingly, K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, whose research originally characterized the “10,000 hour” rule, says the studies Hambrick and his colleagues included did not measure practice time appropriately, in part because people often remember it inaccurately. “None of the reported relations proves that deliberate practice could not explain all of the variance,” he says. “With better research using daily practice diaries during the entire development of music and chess performance, we might find that individual differences in the amount and timing of deliberate practice [do] not account for all observed variance, but current data cannot claim to show that.”

Ericsson doesn’t deny that genetic limitations, such as those on height and body size, can constrain expert performance in areas like athletics — and his research has shown this. However, he believes there is no good evidence so far that proves that genetic factors related to intelligence or other brain attributes matter when it comes to less physically driven pursuits.

“I prefer to wait for future studies that show what the detailed training factors and the detailed genetic factors are,” he says, adding that he has seen no convincing evidence that brain-related genes put an absolute limit on expert performance.

Scott Barry Kaufman, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, says the debate is really one over priority; innate talent invariably plays a role in proficiency, but so does training to hone that talent. “The field needs to move beyond such simplistic questions as ‘Is it practice or talent?’ and needs to look at the whole wide range of personal characteristics involved,” he says.

Hambrick’s earlier research, for example, found that working memory — how much information you can hold — accounts for 7% of the variation in sight-reading when playing piano. “Practice, of course, is important, but is it what separates the best from rest? This is evidence that general ability factors are at least part of it,” he says.

But Kaufman notes that practice accounted for more than four times as much variance as working memory. “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that practice accounted for [roughly] 30% of the variance,” he says. “By scientific standards, that’s an extraordinary amount to capture.” So whether you view the data as suggesting that practice is less important because it only accounts for one-third of the variability in proficiency, or more important because it explains more than any other factor discovered so far, is a matter of perspective.

(MORE: What Genius and Autism Have in Common)

And, to make things even more complicated, working memory itself can be enhanced by practice — and it’s extremely difficult to tell how much a passion for a pursuit like music is influenced by environmental factors such as parental encouragement or an existing tendency to persevere. Prodigies, for example, share with autistic people a tendency to have intense focus and high tolerance for repetition — both factors that encourage practice but are linked to genetic factors.

Hambrick says his goal in conducting the research was to expose some of the complexities of the interaction between practice and proficiency, and with his latest results, he hopes to fight unrealistic expectations fostered by theories like the “10,000-hour rule.” He says his research does not support “the egalitarian view that anyone who is sufficiently motivated can become an expert.” However, “the silver lining here is that if people are given an accurate idea of their abilities, they can select activities where they actually have a realistic chance of becoming expert through deliberate practice.”

Ericsson disagrees, insisting that there is no evidence — outside of obvious physical limitations — for significant constraints. But Kaufman takes the middle ground. “Everyone can’t be a genius in everything,” he says. “But I’m coming around to the idea that every single person has the potential for genius in something.”

27 comments
KennethBørgesen
KennethBørgesen

Interesting to read about the research on expertise in the article, not least the bit about the high tolerance for repetition (which again might not be that applicable to the improvisation that mastery probably also is). As I recall Gladwell's claims, they are, in their interrelationship, as complex as the way to more exact knowledge in this particular field (which the author seems to make pretty clear). One thing that is not mentioned is coincidence - the unknown variable that none of us can truly say has not had powerful impact on our lives. So what (also) needs to be looked at might be just that - coincidence! And can (or should) you ever come up with a clever finding on that one?

NickKnell
NickKnell

I don't think this articles author understood the concept in the Outliers book by Gladwell very well. Gladwell's central claims are clearly drawn from the concepts and contributions from research available to society in the general fields of both environment and genetics (or "luck and talent' to put it colloquially), on success. 

The 10,000 hours is approximate because like the good old saying suggests "results may vary" and "Master" is a subjective definition and equally so when compared with the likes of apparently objectively measurable vocations/ activities of chess player or musician. Having said that I roughly calculated 7,184 hours to get through my entire combined undergraduate and post graduate masters program in psychophysiology, in Australia. Roughly- results may vary. Also what is the difference between "master" and "expert"? I mean an expert to my mind would be a specialist in their field. Like what a neurosurgeon is to the mental health sector of allied health. Both master and expert would have had success would they not? Yet one may have racked up more hours more likely in my observations. 

My advice on Gladwell is, if you miss his theorisations, you MISS the concept of his entire book. Don't need to take it so literal. 

SehenaFalconi
SehenaFalconi

I hate to think that "everyone can't be a genius in everything". Everyone deserves a chance to go after their dreams. Not just what they're genetically made to do. Some of us wish to be writers. Others musicians. Still others artists. To say that we can't do something that we have a passion for is very disheartening. It kills the spirit! How can our drive, our passion and motivation count for next to nothing when it comes to a "talent"? Do we have to be born to write, to sing, to live out our dreams? If that's the case then scientists should put aside the argument about what makes us genetically able to perform certain tasks! Instead they should find a way to alter our genes to where we can actually follow our dreams! 

brmcoyle
brmcoyle

This article reminds me why Time squandered its position as the U.S. magazine of record.  Done in he-said, she-said format, it trades on Gladwell's name, then defines the 10,000-hour expert explanation too casually.  I get the feeling editors told author Szalavitz to find the controversy, then dwell on it.  If Hambrick's research goal is too debunk the “10,000-hour rule" because it creates unrealistic expectations for the public, he's hardly a newsworthy scientist.  Ericsson's research wasn't directed at making the public believe in practice, but at explaining expertise.   His methodology was vastly more sensitive and complete than Hambrick's regression of ranks and self-reported practice.  In fact, Ericsson wasn't trying to explain the difference between the top experts, but how expertise develops.  To falsify his idea, find someone who devoted 10,000 focused hours to a skill, and is not an expert.

afam.edozie
afam.edozie

Since the original research which led to the 10,000 hour rule was done, a lot more has been learn't about practice and particularly the role of white brain matter (myelin) in the development of skills. What seems to be more important than the hours of practice is the type of practice.

No one (to my knowledge) has studied the number of hours of deep practice (vs. ordinary practice) that has gone into mastering a skill, but circumstantial evidence is strong that 10 minutes of deep practice builds as much myelin as 100 to 200 minutes of ordinary practice.

In addition, mental practice appears to build myelin just as effectively as 'real' practice. 

It now seems almost conclusive that Brazilian soccer superiority is in part due to the popularity of Futsal (which is played with a heavier ball and in a smaller space), where players contact the ball more than 6 times more (per hour) when compared to regular soccer. Hence they get much more deep practice than people playing regular soccer.

I would be willing to wager that programs will be available within the next 10 years that bring it down to 1,000 hours or less to master a complex skill - such as making music or playing chess.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

The way I see it, what the guy is saying is that it takes 10,000 hours MINIMUM to become a master, but others can take longer.

But my thinking here is that it depends on how that is applied.  For example, flying.  I imagine someone with 10,000 hours strictly doing approaches and landings at difficult airports (like San Francisco recently) in the aircraft they are to fly all the time will be a master at it.  But the lion's share of FLYING hours isn't in the approach pattern.  And most commercial flights spend 97% of their flight hours above 10,000 feet cruising at speed, which doesn't teach them anything about low altitude, low speed flying which seems to me to be somewhat more important since a good landing is critical to keeping the plane (and the people) in flyable condition.

So even though a master may have 10,000 hours or more in the air, they don't necessarily practice the most important parts of flying but for maybe 30 or 40 actual hours of that 10,000 hours of flying (Especially if they fly long-distance routes).  On an 11 hour flight, usually only the last 15 minutes is in the pattern, and the final approach and landing usually lasts less than 60 seconds.  That's 60 seconds of practice for every flight.  1/60th of an hour-long flight.  1/660th of an 11 hour flight.  So for 60 one hour flights, you have 60 minutes of practice in (arguably) the most important part of flying.

To prove my point, statistically speaking, most flying accidents happen on landing (That is to say, they were actually landing and something went wrong as opposed to just hitting the ground whether intended or not) and the majority of crashes are due to pilot error.

Now, here's something to consider: Taking this standard, I'd trust that someone would be a master at landing a particular aircraft after 10,000 hours of doing final approaches in it.  But they'd have long since retired (Mandatory retirement age is 65) because that would have required 600,000 hours of one hour flights.  A little math says that's 68 YEARS of flight time.  Which means that no airline pilot is a master at landing anything anywhere since they just don't practice touch and goes in airliners.

Happy flying!  I'm taking the train.

at7004
at7004

"And is there magic in that 10,000th hour?"

Is that not taking things quite literally? First off, it depends on the field of interest. Does someone need 10,000 hrs to be an expert at knitting and crocheting for example? As compared to becoming an expert in the field of mathematics, or nuclear physics? 

I see this 10K rule as just a rough, ball-park figure, and nothing more.  Putting 10K hours into anything will get you proficient in it, there is no disputing this. Will it guarantee you are a true master in your field or a leading world expert? Of this, I'm not quite so sure, since there are other variables at work as well, such as IQ, creativity, ability to think out of the box, being innovation minded, etc...

scitch
scitch

Some of you missed the point by saying that 10,000 hours develops your talent.  The point is that there is no such thing as talent.  There are those who have put in the 10,000 hours of well-designed (deliberate) practice and those who haven't.  The book "Talent is Overrated" gets even deeper into this.  I blogged about this book here http://motivationalschoolleadership.blogspot.com/2013/04/post-16-motivational-school-leadership.html and here http://motivationalschoolleadership.blogspot.com/2013/04/post-17-geoff-colvin-talent-is.html 
Gladwell was saying that with the right teacher/coach to guide you, anyone can become an expert with 10,000 hours of practice.

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

It really has nothing to do with a certain amount of hours. It all depends on the individual,practice and the task. 

We try to often to find a "formula" for talent and learning and it is  clear that the road to becoming  a "Master of anything" is as varied as the 7 Billion people in Earth. 

BillKeeshen
BillKeeshen

So many people have misinterpreted Gladwell.  10,000 hours is only the formula for talented people.  Sometimes the time helps hone the talent. but 10,000 hours should not be translated into a forgone conclusion.

Michael Jordan had the talent and the 10K.  And that made all the difference.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

It seems kind of pointless to START with extremely talented people and then try this test on them.  After all, they've ALL already hit the "master" level.  So whether they practiced 9000 hours or 11000 over their life is probably not all that critical.  I'd be a lot more interested if they showed NON-MASTERS who had practiced for 10,000 hours and added them to the sample.  That'd be evidence that practice alone can't produce brilliance in an area.  Otherwise all you're doing is demonstrating that some people are more efficient practicers than others, which isn't exactly news to anyone.

Oluwasanmi Adegbaju
Oluwasanmi Adegbaju

Why making too much fuss about '10,000 hour' rule? '10,000 hour' is a mindset which varies based on the complexity of skill being learnt. Yes, success rate can also be affected by other factors which may have been regarded insignificant. The same author - Malcolm Gladwell - calls it OUTLIERS. '10,000 hour' is a mindset; stop looking for the magic number, it won't be found!

mr.quan
mr.quan

10,000 hours only makes you proficient (as stated in the article). Of course natural talent comes into play. Practicing for 10,000 will definitely make you more proficient than someone who practice 1,000. 

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

Agreed, since a master never quits. /m/

Dwayne Leon
Dwayne Leon

Exactly... proper, efficient and effective practice... TIME, this should be a little obvious really...

Eric Lin
Eric Lin

10,000 of GOOD, efficient practice, not reported practice.

Lisa Graham
Lisa Graham

Everyone perfects skills at different rates.

MarcosEliziario
MarcosEliziario

@SehenaFalconi Tough Luck. Maybe you should learn to appreciate what you are as a person, not what you wish you could be.

mrpoog
mrpoog

@SehenaFalconi It would kill the spirit, Sehena. I believe scientists are approaching the capacity to explain exactly how the process of mastery works in such a way that we'd be able to apply it regardless of our talent, but for the time being, follow your dreams and your interest should bring you all the talent you'll need. Your interest will make you seek out the hard questions ('why doesn't my singing voice sound professional?'), and your drive will make you find the answer. That is my approach to growth: there is a reason I am not producing what I want to produce, so I just need to find it and learn how to do it better. If I can do that with every aspect of my music repeatedly after hundreds or thousands of projects, I will be a master.

TitaniumDragon
TitaniumDragon

@SehenaFalconi Without understanding which genes control what, it is impossible for them to control them. Knowledge and understanding comes first. If you don't know what to change, how could you change it?

In any case, however, changing genes in an adult organism may not even be helpful, or even plausible in many cases. If it is dependent on preexisting structures which have already grown, such as brain structure or height or similar things, changing the genes after you're finished growing won't allow you to perform any better.

pianodan007
pianodan007

@scitch Unfortunately that is not the case. I can garantee ( sorry about the spelling, but after 10 000 hours practice , I still cant remember how to spell words) Will absolutely NOT, under any circumstances make many people become "expert" in any particular endeavor. I have 3500 hours practice at piano, all of it very focused,deliberate practice.At the rate I have progressed I would need another 3500 just to become "average" at it.At this point I basically suck at it.Yet others I know who have half that amount of practice are light years ahead of me.I could never compare to them even if I practiced deliberately for 16 hours a day for the rest of my life.Im sorry ,but practice isnt the key to greatest.It just isnt.

at7004
at7004

@scitch  

   Thank you for pointing out what should be the obvious. Apparently, many have missed the entire point.    The other bit that should be obvious is this-  Different fields could require more or less time for mastery.  Some disciplines can be mastered in less than 10K hrs, whilst others could take much more than 10K hrs.    I don't think something like 'the art of swimming pool maintenance' would necessarily require that many hours to become an expert at. And this is not to denigrate them in the least bit, there is quite a bit to keeping pools in perfect working order and having the proper PH balance and such. I have struggled for years to get it right, with only failure, and now I leave it to the pros. But comparing such a thing to becoming a world class, expert, classical violinist, is quite silly. 

It all boils down to this-  To be expert at anything requires "bench time." Edison was right when he said "Genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration."

at7004
at7004

@BillKeeshen  

It would have been an interesting experiment-  Log all of Jordan's hours on the court, since he started as a youngster, and then benchmark his ability as compared to other expert players, when he hit the 10,000th hour of court time.

at7004
at7004

@JenniferBonin  

Some good points. I liked the 10K hrs book/concept but it is silly to read any literalness into that figure. This is not at all what the author intended. It's just an interesting number, that's all.  it does not take into account things such as, personal interest and love of your chosen field, IQ, aptitude, creativity, varying difficulty levels inherent in different fields, and myriad other factors.

In any case, I'm glad this 10K thing came about, since it reinforces what I call "bench time." There is no getting around the enormous commitments of time when mastery a field. I think the authors only intention was to drive home this point. Where he came up with that exact figure, is anyone's guess.

at7004
at7004

@mr.quan 

Quite correct. Dedication of 10K hrs. to the study and practice of just about any given field, will virtually guarantee a baseline of proficiency in that field.  I think this point was part of the author's intention.  "Expertise" is also a highly subjective word.  To a new guitar player, Joey down the street, who knows 15 different chords and the pentatonic scale, is surely a master of the instrument.  However, Joey is hardly an expert to Pat Metheny or Eddie Van Halen.