Beatles Hamburg, Germany 1960

Are 10,000 Hours Really Needed to Develop Expertise?

Posted on June 7, 2017 ·

Our community has always valued exceptional individuals, whose performance is vastly superior to that of the rest of the population. In the past, speculation on the causes of these individuals ‘ extraordinary abilities and performance was commonly attributed to factors such as divine intervention, the influence of the stars, precocious development of the organs of their bodies, or to “special gifts.”

These views held back scientific progress towards learning what really makes experts so talented. There is another view that expert-level performance is simply the result of talent and “natural abilities.”

According to Sir Francis Galton, the first scientist to investigate the possibility that excellence in diverse fields and domains has a common set of causes, “eminent individuals were more likely to have close relatives who were also eminent.” He concluded that “Eminence must be transmitted from parents to their offspring.”

Researchers led by Anders Ericsson suggested that this too was an inadequate hypothesis to explain the exceptional nature of expert performance. They studied the Music Academy of West Berlin, which has an international reputation for its training program for violinists. The researchers concluded that expert-level performance is primarily the result of expert-level practice, not innate talent.

Deliberate practice is an activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day without leading to exhaustion. Many characteristics that were once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended over a minimum of 10 years. Empirical studies have shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout.

This research was globally recognized with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In his discussion of what it takes to become a top performer in a given field, Gladwell emphasized a catchy phrase: “The ten-thousand-hour rule.” According to this rule, it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a master in most fields.

As evidence, Gladwell pointed to results on the student violinists that Ericsson studied. In addition, he gave examples of some well-known people to whom readers around the world could relate. For example, he estimated that the Beatles put in about ten thousand hours of practice while playing in Hamburg in the early 1960s and that Bill Gates put in roughly ten thousand hours of programming to develop his skills to a degree that allowed him to found and develop Microsoft.

In general, Gladwell suggested, the same is true in essentially every field of human endeavor. The rule is irresistibly appealing. It is easy to remember, for one thing. It would have been far less effective if those violinists had put in, say, eleven thousand hours of practice by the time they were 20.

It is also satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-and-effect relationship: just put in ten thousand hours of practice at anything and you will become a master.

The positive side about the massive success of publication of Outliers was that readers came to believe that expert performance is not due to divine intervention but that mastery can be learned. There are lots of movements around the world to achieve expert-level performance in a variety of fields.

Gladwell’s success is not without controversy. Ericsson later published a book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, in which he critiqued Gladwell’s ten thousand hours’ rule. He claimed that his findings had been lauded and debated but never properly explained.

beatles-hamburg The Beatles members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best regularly performed at different clubs in Hamburg, Northern Germany, during the period from August 1960 to December 1962; a chapter in the group’s history which honed their performance skills, widened their reputation, and led to their first recording.




The Beatles put in about ten
thousand hours of practice
while playing in Hamburg in
the early 1960s.

Ericsson argued three main points. “First, there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours. Gladwell could just as easily have mentioned the average amount of time the best violin students had practiced by the time they were 18 — approximately seventy-four hundred hours — but he chose to refer to the total practice time they had accumulated by the time they were twenty, because it was a nice round number…

“We don’t know exactly how many hours of practice these top performers have put in, but it is likely well under ten thousand. Second, the number of ten thousand hours at age 20 for the best violinists was only an average. Half of the ten violinists in that group had not actually accumulated ten thousand hours at that age.”

Ericsson went on to argue that Gladwell misunderstood this fact and incorrectly claimed that all the violinists in the group had accumulated over ten thousand hours. Third, Gladwell did not distinguish between the types of practice that the musicians did. Deliberate practice involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them. This distinction between deliberate practice aimed at a particular goal and generic practice is crucial because not every type of practice leads to improved ability.

What can we learn from this? Research is powerful because in general, people believe that if something is research-based then it must be true. This proves to be valuable. However, the results of research can potentially change with future research and there is still a margin of error. Research can also be used and leveraged in a context that may deviate from the original purpose. Gladwell did state something right when he said that becoming accomplished in any field and becoming experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.

He cleverly used the results of the research and created compelling stories in his book that became an international bestseller. We need to understand the context of research-based study and situate it properly by background checks and additional studies about the topic.

GlobeAsia June, 2017