What Does The 10,000 Hour Rule Really Mean?

Is the 10,000 hour wrong or just misunderstood?

Recently, Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool wanted to clarify what the science actually says, highlighted in their new book Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. They laid out some of its main points in an excerpt, where they mentioned the fundamental flaws with the 10,000-hour rule:

The rule is irresistibly appealing. It’s easy to remember, for one thing. It would’ve been far less effective if those violinists had put in, say, eleven thousand hours of practice by the time they were twenty. And it satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-and-effect relationship: just put in ten thousand hours of practice at anything, and you will become a master.

They then go into detail about the first of its specific flaws:

Problem 1: The number 10,000 was chosen arbitrarily

First, there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours. Gladwell could just as easily have mentioned the average amount of time the best violin students had practiced by the time they were eighteen (approximately seventy-four hundred hours) but he chose to refer to the total practice time they had accumulated by the time they were twenty, because it was a nice round number.

And, either way, at eighteen or twenty, these students were nowhere near masters of the violin. They were very good, promising students who were likely headed to the top of their field, but they still had a long way to go at the time of the study. Pianists who win international piano competitions tend to do so when they’re around thirty years old, and thus they’ve probably put in about 20,000 to 25,000 hours of practice by then; ten thousand hours is only halfway down that path.

It is very important to differentiate between the amount of time required to become extremely good at something, to become a master at something, and to become the world’s best at something.

Problem 2: 10,000 hours was only the average

Second, the number of ten thousand hours at age twenty for the best violinists was only an average. Half of the ten violinists in that group hadn’t actually accumulated ten thousand hours at that age. Gladwell misunderstood this fact and incorrectly claimed that all the violinists in that group had accumulated over ten thousand hours.

Fundamentally, 10,000 hours of practice will actually only keep you level on average with everyone else working toward your same goal. At most stages in your life, if you’re committed to practice and improvement, that figure means you’ll be ahead of about half of your competition, but still be behind the other half.

So you’re actually further away from mastery than most people would think. Other studies have shown that most artists don’t begin to produce their best work until they have been working on their craft for at least 10 years.

Finally, here is the piece of information that may have the biggest impact for the majority of people in pursuit of developing their skills:

Problem 3: Practice itself isn’t enough

Third, Gladwell didn’t distinguish between the type of practice that the musicians in our study did–a very specific sort of practice referred to as “deliberate practice” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them–and any sort of activity that might be labeled “practice.”

This is where we get to the crux of what makes some people improve faster than others. Deliberate practice is about being completely honest with yourself about what you want to improve, finding the best ways to actually achieve that improvement, and then actually executing that practice even if it is challenging and uncomfortable.

It is all about pushing yourself beyond your comfort barriers for a specific purpose because that is where you see the greatest gains.

If you just “spend time practicing,” by spending time doing a task, you will not improve as quickly as you would if you focused on what you want to achieve in that time practicing. One of Kobe Bryant’s trainers recalled a fascinating story of him spending several hours before team training with the U.S. Olympic basketball team, focusing solely on making 800 jump shots.

This is why there is such a fundamental difference between practice and deliberate practice. In fact, if your definition of practice is to repeat what you have previously done, over and over again without pushing yourself further, it will only make your brain more fixed in using those neural pathways and make it less flexible and able to generate ideas to handle new challenges. To illustrate, this optical illusion can show you the exact moment that your brain stops processing your sensory input and instead switches to processing based on memory and experiences.

This will make it harder for you to be creative in the long term. Fortunately, there are simple regular activities you can do that act as deliberate practice specifically for your creativity. I teach them in my seminars and workshops, but you can get the same tool here for free.


Now was Gladwell wrong or are we just looking at it the wrong way.  I think that it’s not so much the 10,000 hours as much as what you do with them.  If you just keep practicing the same thing over and over, you might not get better. I’ve seen cases of many people  spending thousand of hours on the piano and nothing changed very much. But if you pursue growth then things are different.

The story Gladwell told was of the Beatles and their trips to Hamburg and the playing they   did there. The Beatles though didn’t spend that time just playing the same material over and over.  They banged out new material, changed styles and tried new things.  And they brought people in.  They developed a sense of what worked.  Which what you get from practice combined with growth. Which is how the best do it.

That’s the true meaning of the 10,000 hour rule.  It’s not about practice, it’s about being stretched, about growing.  Which is the key to what Mr. Gladwell was saying.  That’s what he’s talking about in that chapter in Outliers.  The 10,000 hours is pointless without the growth.

There’s a reason that the typical job ad say that about 5 years experience is needed. The assumption is that by the time you’ve been at something for about five years you start to reach a threshold of mastery at what you are doing.  At least that’s what I felt about the time that I was laid off at my last job.  That five years was my 10,000 hours in mass spectrometry and at the end of it I felt that I was ready, That I knew enough to take things to the next level. Unfortunately that did not happen and we will never know what that next level will look like.  The lesson of the 10,000 hour rule is about growth and that’s the important thing we should learn.

The Outliers website:


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