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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20 Comments

  • 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.

    http://www.uvm.edu/~pdodds/files/papers/others/2007/ericsson2007a.pdf

  • 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

  • Richard Champion de Crespigny

    I am afraid that there is more to being an "Expert" than just acquiring 10,000 hours.

    When Malcolm Gladwell documents excellence, he was referring to publications (by Anders Ericsson) about 10,000 hours of Deliberate Practice.

    Practice by itself is not sufficient in itself to deliver Excellence.

    Deliberate Practice is practice that is difficult, requiring skills that are just beyond your current capability, withs assessments and feedback to the student.

    Deliberate Practice is not easy or enjoyable. However Deliberate Practice works, because you have the continual feedback to prove it.

    The question of whether you need 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 hours of Deliberate Practice is subjective. My private studies of aviation incidents and accidents aviation shows clearly that excellence is not attained before about 10,000 hours and that Deliberate Practice maintains those standards.

    I wrote about Deliberate Practice in my book "QF32".

  • Brock Poling

    But it wasn't "just" 10,000 of practice. It was 10,000 hours of focused practice with an intent on getting better / improvement.

    That's not quite the same as just putting in the time.

    I am about midway through the book The Rise of Superman, and Steven Kotler talks about how "flow" seems to be an ingredient to short circuit our time to mastery. it is very interesting stuff.

  • I just hope that these scientists did this one friday night over beers. I mean disproving folklore is important but do people get paid to do this? I am still waiting for someone to prove a hamburger with cheese tastes better than a plain hamburger. No one will take on the scientific challenge sadly.... this is important.

  • It's not just the quantity of practice time, it's the quality as well. You'd think that if someone is going to practice 10,000 hours, they'd learn how to practice smart as well.