The 10,000 Hour Rule – Is It a Myth?

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has an interesting theory – that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to become a master at it. He cites the amount of time that The Beatles  put into music, and Bill Gates put into computing, as making them great.

In theory, Gladwell’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. It takes a lot of practice at something to become great at it. And with some things, to become a master, you need to put in the hours. But there are several other points which are missed when people cite the 10,000 hour rule, even though some of these points are also in Gladwells’s book:

10,000 hour rule doesn’t always add up

That number is a lot of time: 10,000 hours at 40 hours a week is 250 weeks, or a little less than five years. Change that number to a more realistic 20 hours a week of practice at a skill, and it is nearly 10 years’ worth of work. A hobby of 10 hours a week would take almost 20 years to master. That is more time than most people are able to put into mastering a craft.

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But even if they were able to put the time in, that in and of itself doesn’t mean greatness. Innate talent and genetics play a huge part, too. A six-foot-five tall, 250-pound man can practice all he wants at riding horses, but he is never going to be a successful professional jockey. Many baseball players have practiced their craft as hard as Derek Jeter, if not harder, but unless they have the skills and talent that he has, they will never be as great.

And there are plenty of phenoms who amazed people at an early age, when there is no possible way they could have put in 10,000 hours. Michael Jackson first started singing professionally at age 8, and was a  worldwide phenomenon when he was 11 years old. As hard as his father worked him, it is doubtful he could have put in the 10,000 hours at such an early age. Same with Jackie Evancho, who became famous as a classical music singer when she was 9.

What’s missing in the 10,000 hour rule

In addition, there are other things that people can be world class at without 10,000 hours of effort. All we need to do is look at things like social media and web design to see that there are people who are the best in the world at it, even though they haven’t put in that sort of time.

Even Gladwell’s own example about the Beatles is problematic. After all, they didn’t make it big until they ditched Pete Best, the drummer who had put into close to 10,000 hours with the band. Instead, they shot to fame with Ringo Starr, who didn’t join the Beatles until the middle of 1962. Besides, given all the hours Best put in, why wasn’t he a world-class superstar on his own?

While Gladwell talks in his book about how other things play a role in superstars in their field, like Bill Gates having access to computers at a time when they weren’t common, several things are lost when people talk about the 10,000 hour rule. As Paul McCartney himself has noted, there were other bands in his era that put in 10,000 hours of work and never got even close to the fame the Beatles did.

At any rate, it is important to work hard at your craft, and put in the time. But simply putting in the 10,000 hours is not a guarantee of greatness.

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 1

  • Interestingly enough, there have been studies of the “young phenoms” that, from outside inspection, look to have mastered their craft in a small amount of time, but it turned out that they actually had done it for a lot longer than people realize. Mozart, for example, is often cited as an exception to this rule. In actuality, his father was a music teacher who taught him from an exceptionally young age. Also, he’s credited with writing works as a young boy. What people don’t realize is that his earliest works were re-workings of other music, it wasn’t until he did that for a number of years before he started composing wholly original work.

    To the point about The Beatles not being able to attribute their success to their extensive practice because they switched drummers, isn’t it possible that Ringo benefitted from the other band members’ experiences? Ringo might have been the final creative injection that the band needed to go from “good” to great, but it’s unlikely that, if the Beatles had limited live experience, that only the addition of Ringo would have suddenly skyrocketed them to greatness.

    So, agreed, the 10,000 hour rule isn’t a guarantee of success. But I think the point that Gladwell is making (as well as other authors like Geoff Colvin and Daniel Coyle), is that we have a fascination with people who seem to be given “gifts from God” if you will, when in fact, upon closer inspection, these amazing talents were cultivated over long periods of time.

    On the other hand, there’s certainly no denying the obvious. The fact that a 250-pound guy won’t make a good jockey is indisputable. In fact, Gladwell even uses the example of how hockey players born at different times of the year have better or worse chances just because of which age group they’re assigned to when they start playing.

    So, while it’s not an immutable fact (and I doubt there are many of those in the study of “greatness” anyway), I think it’s substantially more than a myth.

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