The Myth of 10,000 Hours

What I want to say most to start this off is, “Who came up with ten thousand hours, anyway?!” except I know where it came from and to be honest I am sick of hearing about it.

But who's counting?

Ten thousand hours has become common. Journalists have reduced it to nothing. They have beaten it to death. Even when it is not referencing Expertise, you will hear ten thousand hours being bandied about. It. Just. IS.

I hate to break it…no…I love to break it to you. Ten thousand hours means nothing.

The research that spawned this number was performed on 40 violinists and was seeking to find some common experiences and habits among some of the best of them. Those violinists who had achieved the highest levels of skill had accumulated about seven thousand hours of practice by age 18 and about ten thousand hours of practice by age 20.

These data were common among a very small group of musicians from among a small group of subjects. Data on practice time was self-reported. From this article, came our famous misinterpretation by Gladwell who took it upon himself to recognize “experts” in retrospect by attributing ten thousand hours of practice to individuals and groups.

Outliers. Silliness.

Expertise is superlative. It is rare. It is domain specific and its definitions and components do not transfer to other domains. That is to say that those things that contribute to Expertise in violin playing are not likely to contribute to Expertise in another content area.

While some may ask why it is important to make these distinctions I find it compelling. There are other conditions that are necessary for the achievement of Expertise. It is possible for anyone to become competent with enough practice, guidance, and some motivation. It is not possible to become and Expert on these things alone–even with ten thousand hours of deliberate practice.

Many will live out their existence as “experienced non-Experts,” or the more pedestrian “merely competent” despite significant dedication and many hours, weeks, and years of practice. So sorry.

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  • Reminds me of Amadeus. Sadly, no matter how much dedication to our arts, most of us are fated to be more Salieri than Mozart. But I think Gladwell’s point wasn’t that just anyone can be a Mozart. It was only that the way to Carnegie hall _includes_ practice, practice, practice as well as a lot of fortuitous circumstances beyond our control. He suggested that there may be a lot of others with the potential to be Beatles, Gateses, and pro hockey players who never had the right opportunities to achieve expertise. His point wasn’t that we can all be experts but that we would all benefit from having many more experts in the world if we expanded opportunity. Experts don’t emerge from vacuums as the right-wing “success” worshipers would have us think.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Well, I cannot say that there is anything to suggest that some “opportunity action” would increase the number of Experts. The tacit decisions that are made in the earliest years have a far greater influence than many of the commonalities among players in the game.

    Gladwell’s greatest fault is his misrepresentation of what is already very good and very readable research. In some ways–not to be extreme–the reading public is being sold a bill of goods that there are more Experts out there or that there is the potential to act in some way to create more of them.

    I think any of us would be happy with Salieri-level competence. In others, at least.

  • You will find that those who don’t have the other conditions to become experts won’t put in the 10,000 hours.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Thanks for your comment. You may be right.

    I don’t want you to miss the point, though, that the idea of 10k hours is A. not a proven or even highly suggestible number to achieve Expertise and B. those in the study that produced the 10k hours of practice did so to become novices.

  • Is (almost) everyone expert in something?

    And…are we confusing being an expert with being “excellent”?

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    I think that we like to throw around the term colloquially when we really mean competent or merely “good.” I purposely capitalize the E in Expert when talking about the research area but I still avoid the term unless I’m talking about genuine, superior, skill. The question of Expertise is relegated to the domain of the skill set.

    Gladwell’s error is that he takes Ericsson’s 10k hour study and uses it to broadly and retroactively define the designation. It is haphazard and it is inaccurate. As discussed in the post, the study is small and we all know how (sm)all studies should be treated in regard to their generalizability. Beyond that, the individuals who are described as having commonalities of 10k hours are Novices, not Experts. Oops.

    Your second question is important and accurate. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Expertise theory is based on repetition… so it all comes back to Thorndike.

  • Spot on. Ericsson, and journalists who have cashed in on his work, oversimplify the pathway to Expertise. Not many people develop Expertise because it is very hard.

    Few are willing to make the sacrifices and maintain their passion and love for the domain of their choice to achieve Expertise.

    Just because we can map out the pathway to Expertise, it doesn’t mean everyone can travel it – you have to be willing to pay the price!

  • On a scientific level, Ericsson is legit and the fact that journalists like Malcom Gladwell and Daniel Coyle have popularized his work has no bearing on whether the science is solid. At this point there is no clear, unified, generally accepted theory of expertise on either the business/HRD silo or the educational silo, and until there is Ericcson’s work and unique voice deserves full respect. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Please do not read this as being (overly) critical of Ericsson–he did the research and I do not see him overstating its value. I don’t think anyone is questioning the legitimacy of Ericsson; he’s done and continues to do fine work. The problem is taking a very small study and using a very broad brush to make the types of statements made by journalists in the name of “science.” While there is no unified definition of (capital E) Expertise, there are accepted measured and indicators for (lowercase e) expertise in many specialized fields. In the end, I believe that Ericsson’s quest for a unified theory will either be abandoned (it kind of has been already) or developed into a framework by which fields may adapt to fit domain-specific skills at superlative levels. The baby is fine but the water is filthy with many who would like to sell the snake oil and balm to the masses. Let’s face it–the journalists have read the research wrong. Expertise is not for everyone.

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