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.
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!