So We Need To Have A Talk About The 10,000-Hour Rule…

So We Need To Have A Talk About The 10,000-Hour Rule…

Aug. 9, 2019

The 10,000-hour rule changed everything.

The revolution started with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliersbut Gladwell actually borrowed the idea from Anders Ericsson.

The idea is this: There’s no such thing as talent. No one is born great at anything. The only way to become a master is to spend at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on that skill. The best in the world were studied and we learned one thing: it took masters about 10,000 hours of deep practice to become the best.

At first, it was a crazy idea. Now it’s accepted by everyone.

And the idea has tremendous implications.

If there’s no such thing as talent, we all have hope. Opportunity is there for all of us. Anyone can be great at anything.

All we have to do is practice.

There’s only one problem.

Believing in the 10,000-hour rule has terrible ramifications.

Here are the problems with the focused, 10,000-hour revolution (in no particular order):

  1. At first blush, the 10k rule seems to open the door to greatness to everyone. It actually might do the opposite. Let’s say you fall in love with the guitar and want to make a living out of it. Every thought is filled with excitement. And then 10,000-hour cold bucket of water gets dumped in your face. Sure, you love it, but you’ll have to spend 10,000 hours on it? That’s a ton of time. 10,000 hours means 6 hours a day, every day of the week, for almost 5 years. Who can do that? Who wants to do that? You may love the guitar but that’s too much commitment. There are bills to pay and other things to take care of. So you drop it. The 10,000-hour rule claims another victim.
  2. What if you want to quit? What if you decide you like something and dive in to the 10,000 hour pond? What if, after 5,000 hours, you feel it’s not working out? What do you do then? How many opportunities have passed you by?
  3. The best performers did a bunch of different things. Sure, there are a few isolated examples of superstars picking something early and putting their hours in (Tiger Woods). But there are far more examples of elite performers who dabbled in a bunch of other things before becoming the best (Roger Federer). You don’t have to choose your endeavor and do only that for the next several years. The research actually shows that most icons didn’t focus on any one thing at all for a very long time. They did many different things.
  4. 10,000-hour people are terrible at figuring things out. By deeply focusing on one thing for so many hours, you become terrible at ad-libbing or solving problems that don’t fit in the small box you’ve been studying. The best problem-solvers, the creative revolutionaries, came from a very diverse background. As David Epstein said in his amazing book Range, “The main conclusion of work that took years of studying [expert] scientists and engineers was that those who did not make a creative contribution to their field lacked interests outside their narrow area.”
  5. Finding a match is way more important than doing 10,000 hours of work. It doesn’t matter how many hours of focused work you do if you end up hating it. Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with practice. Deliberate practice does create skill. But what do we practice on? The 10,000-hour rule doesn’t tell us what to choose! And picking something we end of hating after thousands of hours is debilitating, and possibly tragic. The most important aspect of becoming the best, and making meaningful contributions, is doing something we truly like to do. How do we find that? By spending a few hours trying a bunch of different things. Not only will those hours translate over into extra skill sets in our final choice, but it’s the only way to find out what we really want to do. “I know what I am when I see what I do,” is the mantra prescribed by Herminia Ibarra (via Range).
  6. Choosing too early can be fatal. The 10,000-hour rule created a cult of getting a head start. Parents are forcing children into things as early as possible to get the clock started on the necessary 10k hours. But that’s a terrible thing to do. Humans are constantly changing. We all become very different people as we age. Making a 10,000-hour commitment too early is a prison sentence. We need to dabble, get useful perspectives, and then focus in on something when we’re fully formed. As Epstein said, “Specializing early is a task of predicting match quality for a person that doesn’t exist.” There is no head start. Trying to get one does way more harm than good.

Focus is important. Practice is important. But finding a match for who we are is the most important.

And, it turns out, the real superstars didn’t get head starts or stay put in one thing.

The superstars were generalists.

“And he refused to specialize in anything, preferring to keep an eye on the overall estate rather than any of its parts…And Nikolay’s management produced the most brilliant results.”

-Leo Tolstoy (via Range)


My book is called The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.