Turns out it doesn’t take 10,000 hours to become an expert

Time to give up on perfection?
Time to give up on perfection?
Image: Reuters/ Kim Kyung Hoon
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The popularity of the 10,000-hour rule says more about the hope it promises than any rigorous science.

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any field was put forward in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers. The concept quickly became well known, even though the authors of the science behind it said Gladwell over-simplified their work. Last month, researchers published yet another blow to the finding, when they revisited the original study and couldn’t recreate the same result. 

Gladwell’s 10,000-hour concept is largely based on a 1993 study, which found that the best violin students at a Berlin music academy had done, on average, 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were 20. There are already holes in using this research to support Gladwell’s theory: These students were still just students, after all, not masters, and many had done fewer than 10,000 hours of practice (which is how the group reached that number on average).

And yet, the 10,000-hour rule took hold. It promises such glory: Any one of us, with the right kind of practice, can become a chess master, or an author, or a concert pianist. (Though the rule is often perceived as applying to physical sports, Gladwell only wrote about it in the context of intellectual pursuits. “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals,” he wrote in the New Yorker.) 

A paper replicating the 1993 study, published last month, undermined the slim academic standing this rule had. In the latest study, published in Royal Society Open Science, researchers evaluated the practice habits of three groups of 13 violinists, rated as best, good, and least-accomplished. They found that while the least-accomplished violinists practiced less, both the good and best violinists had an average of 11,000 practice hours. In other words, despite practicing just as much as the best, the good violinists couldn’t make it to the top.

Such results should be of little surprise: Even Gladwell never suggested that innate aptitude was irrelevant. Rather, his rule was intended to highlight the work necessary to achieve great results. But the latest study does complicate the neat notion that hard word inevitably leads to mastery. Sometimes, we can work and work, and still only be pretty good.

From some perspectives, this is dispiriting. It means there’s no guaranteed path to becoming a master. But then again, abandoning the notion that hard work leads to a guaranteed wonderful end point can create a much more meaningful relationship to work.

Passions aren’t “discovered”—they’re created. And how much healthier is it to create a passion by working on something because it’s interesting, rather than because it will make you a master? Even after tens of thousands of hours, there’s always more we can learn and do. When a hobby or profession is loved for its own sake, you want the work to keep going, regardless of how long you’ve already been practicing for. It may not make you a star, but engaging in any skill for its own joy will lead to a far more fulfilling life than slogging through 10,000 hours to achieve impossible mastery.