Why the 10000 Hour Rule is not a Rule

Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool is an absolute gem on how we can all become exceptional performers. If you have read Outliers or Talent is Overrated you know the 10000 hour rule. Well this is based on the research Anders Ericsson did in 1993. His basic argument is 10000 hours was only an average and it was based on his study of great violinists.
The point he makes is this was the amount of hours the best violinists in his study put by the time they reached age 20. However he cautions that this was only an average which means there were people below and above that number. He says that Gladwell mentioned that all of them in his study put in 10000 hours which is not correct. He also says this doesn’t mean they were experts based on his observations. In fact he said they still had scope for improvement.
His other major point is it is only by age 30 most pianists reached expert level and became internationally acclaimed which means it would have taken them twenty thousand hours before they reached super-stardom in their field. I think Gladwell made a generalization which made big headlines as well and there is no question he brought the 10000 hour rule to the mainstream. There is also the famous case of SF who actually became an expert in memorizing many groups of numbers with 200 hours of practice. So I don’t think that 10000 hours is a rule however Gladwell is correct that it does require tons of practice to become an expert in your area of endeavor. We can’t generalize as every field is different.
Gladwell also mentioned that the Beatles had put in 10000 hours before they became great. The authors however mention that according to Time In an exhaustive biography of the Beatles by Mark Lewisohn a more accurate total number is about eleven hundred hours of playing. Deliberate practice is not about performing it is about doing designed sessions focused on getting better with constant feedback on areas of improvement.
Another myth the book debunks is that we all have to start at an early age to become exceptional. He says however that if you adopt deliberate practice you can do it at a later age as well. For example there is a 69 year old who wanted to become a black belt by the time he was 80 years. Anders Ericsson advised that you have to get individual coaching if you want to achieve that. A coach can help you through areas of improvement that can’t happen in a group so if you are starting later then go for individual coaching.
Laszlo Polgar was a Hungarian psychologist who was looking for someone to marry him and then he wanted to experiment with his children to show that genius can be imparted through practice. He was blessed with 3 girls and made them all superstars in chess. They were put through home schooling and they had only chess books and in fact one of the daughters won a tournament for under 11 at the age of four. Quite unbelievable but it wasn’t luck or innate talent but sheer persistence, perseverance and practice.
Another example is Mozart who is widely considered an absolute genius possessed with innate talent. The backstory is however slightly different. His father Leopold was an accomplished musician himself and he was already giving lessons to his daughter by the time Wolfgang was born. Even the early musical notes by Mozart were actually penned by Leopold. However with a great home environment conducive to learning music Mozart honed his talent and became what we now call a freakish genius.  There is no substitute for practice. Of course the right type of practice.
Benjamin Bloom conducted a study on exceptional performers in the mid 1980’s and his major revelation was that drive and determination was the key to success and not innate talent. So what is deliberate practice – it is basically practice that is designed, has clear goals, is measurable, gets you outside your comfort zone which is the key, there is constant feedback and there is a coach who can point to areas of improvement. How does this apply to most of us? I believe the following steps can help
  1. Identify experts in your field
  2. Read their blogs
  3. Listen to their podcasts
  4. Document what you have learnt. Remember the palest ink is better than the most retentive of memory.
  5. Share what you have learnt and invite feedback
  6. Read every day in your field
  7. There are white papers you can read in your field
  8. Keep aware of the trends
  9. Read broadly on other areas of personal development
  10. Take certifications in your area of expertise
  11. Finally keep repeating these 10 steps throughout your life
 I think it is better to try deliberate practice and even if it fails at least your knowledge has improved and you haven’t wasted your time. I think it is better to try and fail than not try at all.
So plan your career, take chances, engage in deliberate practice and you might become an expert though 10000 hours does not guarantee expertise. This book is a good primer on what it takes for anyone to reach peak performance in their chosen area of expertise. The best part is we get this information straight from the leading researcher on exceptional performance.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organizations


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