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Have you ever heard someone say they are “working toward their 10,000 hours?” I’m sure everyone reading this has heard of the “10,000 hour rule”: the idea, drawn from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. There’s a big problem with this: the 10,000 number is not real. It’s made up. It is a carefully chosen fabrication intended to sell books, but it causes us to miss the things that are truly important–the things that will move us toward mastery.

It’s a lie!

I think the 10,000 hours rule has been re-hashed enough that everyone knows it, but let’s just cover the broad bases. In his book, Gladwell looked at some research that focused on German violin players. The research found that the “best violinists” accumulated significantly more hours of deliberate practice than did violinists who were to become music educators, noting that that group had to fulfill lower admission requirements.

After creating the 10,000 hour rule from this research, he then finds other narrative examples, such as the Beatles’ time spent playing together and Bill Gate learning coding, and backs into the magical 10,000 hour math. A reasonable extension of this rule, if it were true, would be that that natural talent or ability do not matter (or don’t matter much), and, in fact, might not even exist–all that matters is what you work toward the 10,000 hours to mastery.

There are a few problems with this, but the biggest problem is that it simply is not and never was true. Gladwell did not conduct the research himself. Rather, he took the work done in this paper: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (1993) by Anders Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer and used that as the seed for a best-selling book.  Gladwell is a great writer and knows how to craft a story, but that story does not reflect a solid understanding of the actual research.

For example, he cherry picked the 10,000 hours from the average of the elite groups’ estimated lifetime practice at age 20. Had he picked another age, he wouldn’t have come up with such a memorable number, and probably wouldn’t have sold many books! At any rate, the 10,000 was an average, hiding a vast range between the high and low, and half of the violinists had not reached 10,000 hours by age twenty. Gladwell claimed conclusively that they all had; whether this was his misunderstanding of the research or a willful misrepresentation to strengthen his 10,000 hour narrative, we do not know. He then took this idea and extended it to other examples, fabricating a record for the Beatles and Bill Gates to explain their success in diverse fields as a product of 10,000 hours of “practice”.

Too many people who should have known better (particularly in the field of trading), but it’s a very catchy idea that plays to our idea of the importance of passion and hard work. Pop cultuer seized on the idea, and it’s become deeply entrenched. At the same time, people who do understand the issues have pushed back. The whole concept of 10,000 hours has been roundly criticized by scientists, perhaps none more so than Anders Ericsson himself, who has said that Gladwell simply didn’t understand the research. Other writers have pointed out that mastery can be achieved in far less than 10,000 hours, and some people can never attain mastery, and that different fields require very different investments… the list of objections goes on. In the storm of controversy, Malcom Gladwell had this to say about the book:

Yes. There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.

So there it is in a nutshell: complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.

Why we care

Let me give you a few examples, drawn from my experience. If we approach mastery with the idea that we need to push toward some mythical goal of 10,000 hours, we start thinking of ways to do just that, and this is a lot of time. For reference, if you work a standard 40 hour work week and took no vacations during the year, you’d hit your 10,000 hours somewhere before year 5. On the other end of the scale, if you imagine a serious hobby at which you spend 10 hours a week (2 hours a day 5 days a week, or maybe 6 hours on the weekend with a sprinkling through the week–realistic for most serious hobbies), it would take you 20 years to reach 10,000 hours. Something you do only occasionally throughout the week? You probably wouldn’t get there in a lifetime.

Now, here’s our first clue that something might be wrong: how many people have logged far more than 10,000 hours in careers, but have not achieved “mastery” (whatever that means) in those fields? There are good reasons for that, and we’ll get to those reasons in my next post. But if you convince people that logging these hours is the key to success, a surprising number of people will start working toward that goal. Here are some specific things I’ve seen:

  • Traders at a prop firm, probably laboring under the Puritanically-derived American “work ethic” that hard work should be miserable and require long hours, planning on getting to the desk early in the morning, sitting there all day, and staying until evening so they can work toward their 10,000 hours.
  • There’s a community (or was) of people learning self-taught piano playing who record their practice hours toward 10,000 hours.
  • Well-meaning online communities of traders encouraging each other and saying they just gotta put in the screen time and log their 10,000 hours. Traders have always thought (wrongly) that learning to trade was just a matter of logging “screentime”, but once the book came out some traders went nuts. I read a sad blog of a kid who graduated from college and passed on job offers so he could spend the next 3 years working toward his 10,000 hours… on a simulator.
  • There’s a community of online creative writers who set writing projects for themselves to work toward the goal of the mythical 10,000 hours…

You get the point. Pop science is a dangerous drug, but the messages resonate for a reason–because they are catchy and memorable–not because they are right.

What else matters

The discussion about the 10,000 hours cuts right to the heart of the nature/nurture divide. On one side, people say that genes and natural ability are all that matters, and the other side says that it’s all training and anyone can learn to do anything. (If you want a shortcut to the truth, it’s usually in the middle of any argument.) The 10,000 hours is all about hard work, but what else might matter? We now have some solid research that quantifies the effect hard work has on achievements in different fields. In the 2014 paper Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis, authors Macnamara  et al conclude:

researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice…. This view is a frequent topic of popular science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

So what else might matter? That’s the right question, and it is also the topic of my next post.