Ten Thousand Hours

Fascinating extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers: The Story of Success. If you want to become the best at something, all it takes is ten thousand hours.

In the early 90s, the psychologist K Anders Ericsson and two colleagues set up shop at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. The first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. The second were those judged to be merely “good”. The third were students who were unlikely ever to play professionally, and intended to be music teachers in the school system. All the violinists were then asked the same question. Over the course of your career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?

Everyone, from all three groups, started playing at roughly the same time – around the age of five. In those first few years, everyone practised roughly the same amount – about two or three hours a week. But around the age of eight real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up as the best in their class began to practise more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight by age 12, 16 a week by age 14, and up and up, until by the age of 20 they were practising well over 30 hours a week. By the age of 20, the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours.

The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

This idea – that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice – surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

4 replies
  1. Keith Rodd
    Keith Rodd says:

    Haven’t read Gladwell’s latest yet, but I will – after all, how can one resist a writer who took 277 pages to describe what happens in a “Blink”?

    This 10,000 hour thing sounds compelling at first blush, but I think misses a crucial point, i.e., motivation. The FACT that the best violinists practiced the most is hardly enlightening. The real key is WHY they did.

    Years ago I attended a quitar workshop on fingerpicking. The instructor, a well-established and very talented player, offered an interesting analogy. He said that we’re each born with a kind of biological ‘switch’ that recognizes when something is becoming boring and shuts off our desire to continue doing it. A reasonable device, in my opinion. His theory was that people who became very proficient at, in this case guitar playing, had a broken switch. So, while the rest of us might practice a riff a hundred times or so and declare it ‘good enough’ when our “boredom switch” went off, these people would continue tweaking the nuances until it was just right, never getting bored with playing the same dozen note riff.

    This cute analogy doesn’t go a whole lot further in explaining the ‘why’ of excellence but at least begins to point to some of the psychological drivers that might be at play. For me, the FACT that it takes 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 hours to become first-class in something isn’t particularly interesting or enlightening – except to confirm that I’ll likely not achieve world class status as a didgeree-do player. It’s equivalent to saying that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. It’s a fact presented as insight.

    Which brings me to my real point. There’s a danger in accepting the presentations of people even as talented and insightful as Gladwell without some degree of critical questioning. We tend to accept that these people actually know what they’re talking about, no matter what they’re talking about(people like Oprah, Dr. Phil, Donald Trump, et al fit here, as well), It’s useful to remember that Gladwell’s training and experience is as a journalist, a trade that relies heavily on “facts” and compelling writing, less so on insight and deep analysis. His provocative ideas keep us off balance and interested; his entertaining writing style keeps us engaged; his fame appears to add heft to his perspective; but in the end, observations like the ‘10,000 hours to excellence’ add little to our real understanding of the subject – which would include, at a minimum, a deeper look at the question of motivation and personal drivers, and an examination of the implied definitions of ‘success’ in Gladwell’s perspective.

  2. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Hi Keith,

    Thanks for dropping by the blog. And yes, the post was tongue-in-cheek.

    If only life were as simple as counting the number of hours to achieve excellence.

    In my own experience, it does take time and commitment to build a base of skill to successfully execute complex activities. However, simply logging thousands of hours and making the assumption that excellence is achieved does fail to take into account the many variables that impact excellence.

    Musicians understand the discipline required to build up the muscle memory to play an instrument. Is the entry to excellence based on the 9,000th hour of practice? Or the 10,000th hour of practice? What about passion? Creativity? Innovation?

    Of the hundreds of excellent musicians I have played and worked with over the years, all of them began to play in their youth. And they devoted considerable time to building up their skills. However, as with many things in life, it was not simply about logging time.

    I have a post titled 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time which has generated hundreds of comments. I seriously doubt that any one of those great players ever measured their entry into excellence based on an arbitrary measure of practice.

  3. susan.meindl
    susan.meindl says:

    I was interested by Rodd’s anectdote about the finger picking and the “boredom switch”. I think that the concept of “flow” experiences… which are common in artistic, scientific and otherwise creative domains… might have some applicability here. The characteristic quality of “flow” experiences is that there is a microscopic back and forth cycle of effort, feed-back and re-adjustment that keeps us interested, involved and hooked on the activity. The feed back can come from many sources; subjective experiences of success, or failures which are small enough that we will try again (like hitting a wrong note).. or sometimes from social feed-back.. the interest and attention, support and validation received from significant others!
    As a psychologist who often works with young adults, I see how their boredom is often a matter of “having pulled one’s heart out of something” … usually because the investment had proved painful


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