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Scientists Debunk The Myth That 10,000 Hours Of Practice Makes You An Expert

A theory Malcolm Gladwell popularized in Outliers—that 10,000 hours of practice can turn anyone into an expert—probably isn't true, a new study says.

Can 10,000 hours of practice really make you an expert at anything? The widely touted theory, highlighted in a 1993 psychology paper and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, says that anyone can master a skill with 10,000 hours of practice. There's even a Macklemore song about it, so that makes it real.

Scientists, however, remain skeptical. A recent study by a group of psychologists from five universities, rebuffs Gladwell's wisdom. Different levels of deliberate practice can only explain one third of the variation in performance levels in chess players and musicians, the authors found, "leaving the majority of the reliable variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors." In other words, practice is great! But practice alone won't make you Yo Yo Ma. It could also have to do with personality, the age you started, intelligence, or something else entirely.

The psychologists reanalyzed data from six previous studies of chess competitions (1,083 subjects in total) and eight studies of musicians (628 total) for correlations between practice and success, and found huge disparities in how much chess grandmasters and elite musicians had practiced. One chess player, for example, had taken 26 years to reach a level that another reached in a mere two years. Clearly, there's more at work than just the sheer volume of hours practiced, the study (and a similar one by the same authors published in May) argues. "The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice," according to the researchers. K. Anders Ericsson, the scholar whose 1993 paper Gladwell cited, publicly disagreed with these findings, arguing that his critics had examined too many beginners rather than expert performers.

However, Ericsson—among others—has called the specifics of Gladwell's version of the theory into question, and Gladwell has caught plenty of flack recently over inaccuracies in his books.

So, if your childhood music lessons never turned into a concert orchestra gig, rest assured: It's probably not just that you didn't practice enough. Thank your innate lack of talent!

[HT: National Geographic, Popular Science]

[Images via Shutterstock]

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  • James Chu

    ''So, if your childhood music lessons never turned into a concert orchestra gig, rest assured: It's probably not just that you didn't practice enough. Thank your innate lack of talent!''

    I think it's ironic the way the author bring into question the theory of 10,000 hours, and then goes make a pretty strong statement about how the role of genetics may contribute to our overall talent, without any premise with which to back up that statement.

    Furthermore, she could of at least done justice by recognising the distinction between a growth and fixed mindset, with studies providing strong evidence that the former is more beneficial to overall skill acquisition, thus performance.

    In the end, a statement such as this has been given little thought, and really shows a lack of professionalism.

  • Marco Fujimori

    you said probably isn't true, what's that mean? it's either true or it isn't.

    problem is, it has never been tested.

    but i do follow this principle, and i'm telling you, my golf swing is hella better!

    so i humbly disagree with you on this one.

  • James Chu

    Well, to be honest, whilst you're right in saying that x is either true or it isn't, this does not enable us to know whether x is true or not. If that were the case, then by that logic, we'd know everything there is to know, literally.

    We can know that something is probably true, as in, it's more likely that x is true, compared to something else. So she would've been silly to of claimed something as a fact without certainty, especially given the complex nature of this topic.

  • Brian Taylor

    Since Gladwell never said any such thing nor even, really, anything close to it, you may simply smack this discussion soundly with your STRAW MAN stamp and ignore it. Or, if the need should arise, print it out and use the paper in the smallest room of your house.

    I'll be back when this author acquires 10,000 hours of practice in the art of intellectual honesty - at least to the point that she bothers to inquire of what she writes.

  • Bill Sornsin


    So the whole premise of the article fails.

  • Alexa Lynn Kramer

    Here is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers:

    "[Ericsson's] research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works"

    Therefore, I interpreted the "10,000 hour rule" as referenced in this book as a rule to distinguish people who already have natural talent in a certain area. 10,000 hours of practice obviously won't make anyone an expert at anything they devote their time to. However, of all the musicians who have the talent to get into a top music school, the 10,000 hours of practice makes them markedly better than those who have devoted less time to practicing.

  • I think this article also confuses expert with talent. I can be an EXPERT in classical music theory and HORRIBLE or INEPT at playing classical music.

    I can be an expert in endurance training but not good enough to compete in the olympics.

    This article appears to be largely discussing talent vs. expert knowledge on a subject.

  • I feel the need to chip in with many commenters here. You're making up something to argue against!

    The "10,000 hour rule" is <b>not</b> about punching a clock and ending up with superhuman ability. It is about achieving mastery.

    "Mastery" itself is a vague concept, but it involves understanding the interaction of nuances of an activity, and about being able to perform that activity with precision and finesse.

    There is also a difficult-to-quantify component. Let's call it "passion." Someone who achieves mastery hasn't simply punched a time clock for five years; they've ate, slept, and breathed that activity, pouring their soul into it.

    And let's look again at "talent." Some claim that the 10,000 Hour Rule implies that you don't need talent to achieve mastery, but I don't buy it. Perhaps "talent" is no more than "passion," that all-encompassing drive to succeed.

    Thomas Edison is famed for saying, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration."

  • (Damn, I hate unannounced limits to comment length.)

    I recall a cartoon I once saw. A woman was touring an art festival.

    First frame, she says to a flute player that she'd always wanted to play the flute. He responded, "I've been practicing 4-5 hours a day since I was ten."

    Next frame, she says how nice it must be to throw beautiful pottery; the potter responds that she's been making pottery for ten years, putting 60+ hours a week into it during that time.

    Next frame, she tells a weaver that she'd always dreamed of making her own beautiful clothing. The weaver responds that she studied textile arts formally for three years, then worked thousands of hours for free as an apprentice for a master for another four years, finally starting her own practice.

    Final frame, the woman is sitting in front of a TV, pressing the remote control, muttering, "Some people have all the talent."

    Go out and make your talent. Then the other 99% is easy!

  • Terri Main

    I'd go the other way. 10,000 hours (or at least a whole bunch of hours) is the starting point not the ending. I always understood the theory to be mastery of the field not becoming a genius. I'm a poor singer, but if I took 10,000 hours of singing lessons from a competent teacher, I might never sing at the met, but I could join the church choir without embarrassing myself because I would have learned enough to overcome my deficits.

    I have a modest talent at best for writing, but after 40 years of practice, I can turn out copy that people seem to like to read. Will I win the Nobel Prize for literature? No. Too many people want to blame lack of talent, when it's actually lack of hard work.

  • Eric Howard

    A lot of people take the "10,000 hours" term as Gladwell's entire thesis. What's missing is his argument that mastery and success come from 10,000 deliberate hours PLUS advantages that are out of anyone's control, such as being 10 months older in your little league sports team, or the fact that Bill Gates had regular access to a computer when most universities had to time share their resources. Never forget the power of hard work coupled with good ol' serendipity!

  • Most of you seem to miss the fact that Gladwell never says that 10,000 hours is sufficient to make one a master. What he says repeatedly is that those who become masters in their chosen profession have usually spent 10000 hours studying, practicing, and honing their craft. That's a big difference. In other words there is no one to one correlation between putting in the time and becoming world class, but if you want to become world class you had better put in the time.

    N.B. I'm not a Gladwell fan and find most of his work slipshod if well written. It does bother me when people misrepresent someone else's position. It's worth pointing out that Gladwell did not in any way originate the 10,000 hour rule. He stol... er, adapted it from a paper that appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

  • Gladwell gave credit to the Harvard Business Review in the edition of Outliers that I read. I find his citations to usually be very specific and detailed. I disagree with your distaste for his work but I think the main point of your statement above is correct.

  • I have to agree. I am a tennis coach and the theory of 10,000 hours practice making someone an expert is laughable.

    It also depends on the type of practice. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. You can spend 10,000 hours practicing the wrong thing, all that happens is that you become very good at doing the wrong thing!

    You also have to add in the ability and the desire to learn, the ability to absorb information and apply it when needed, this is something that cannot just be practiced, there has to be the natural built in tendencies to achieve expert status.

    This is just another ridiculous attempt to make "everyone a winner", no matter how incompetent you are, thus, over time, reducing the quality and standards of a sport.

  • Perfect practice doesn't make sense.

    That would imply that you were already perfect at practice, but to achieve perfection in practice would require that you practice practice until you were perfect at it.

    But to do so, you would have to practice practice perfectly. You see?

    Not to mention, achieving perfection is already an unreasonable expectation.

  • Hugo Sousa

    Ahmmm, as the author said, Gladwell, it is not just about the 10.000 hours but the way you do it. In automatic pilot you can work 100,000 hours and you still are in the average.

  • Scott Lamson

    I didnt know anyone really took the '10000' hours theory seriously and not just a vague rule of thumb. There are different kinds of practice. For example you can go through the motions in a rote manner or you can focus on increasing level of detail.

  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    If you are not interested any subject ,you cannot be master of that subject if you practice twenty million hours to be expert on that subject.Master on any subject you must be wholeheartedly love that subject with passion your failure is sure, on contrary if you passionately love that subject you will master of subject with little practice.This universal law.

  • Thanks for this helpful article Shaunacy! It's affirms my concerns about Gladwell's theory and how it's been communicated. Mastery is not achieved by just putting in the time; Quantity does not produce Quality. If that were the case, those of us over 13 years old would all be amazing speech communicators! There are too many other variables at work such as goals, mental discipline, body structure and others yet to be discovered.
    I recently read The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) and Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin). Both books address this topic in different ways and are very helpful in understanding the pursuit of excellence in any field. Thanks again! Mike