Ten Thousand Hours

It’s kind of surprising that after publishing over 400 blog posts during the last eight years that I’ve never written about a concept that has so significantly influenced my perspective on parenting, on teaching and on life.

10,000 hours.

That’s the amount of time a person needs to dedicate to develop expertise in an area. The concept comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In the book, Gladwell examined different studies across a variety of fields to determine what made some people excel and reach a level of expertise and become an “outlier” amongst their peers. Gladwell writes that he found “an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields … you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good” (2008).

Before we move on, it’s necessary to discuss a few things. First off, 10,000 hours isn’t the only ingredient for excellence and success. A person also needs to possess a natural affinity for success in that area. Standing at barely 5’6″ I am certain that after dedicating 10,000 hours practicing trying to dunk a basketball that I’d ever become an NBA star. Practice isn’t enough but it makes a difference. While I will become a better basketball player by practicing, becoming an “outlier” also depends on other factors.

Another caveat is that not all practice is created equal. Beginning musicians typically utilize repetitive practice when they learn to play a song. They’ll work through a song from start to finish over and over without examining which areas may be more difficult than others. While they’re dedicating a lot of time practicing, they spend equal time practicing easy parts and more difficult ones. More accomplished musicians will study a piece to find the hardest parts of song and focus their attention on these areas first. This deliberate practice helps them dedicated more time on improving their performance and growing their skill set. This deliberate practice factors more heavily in the growth attributed to the 10,000 hours concept than repetitive practice.

The last area that needs to be addressed is that deliberate practicing for 10,000 hours doesn’t yield the same effects across domains. In a meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald 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.” Looking at the results, they write that “the effect of deliberate practice on performance tended to be larger for activities that are highly predictable than for activities that are less predictable.” They also surmised that “one possibility is that deliberate practice is less well defined in these domains.” Regardless of the causes, it is clear that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will have different yields depending on the domain in which you work.

With all of these qualifiers, why do I like the 10,000 hours concept so much? It really comes down to mindset. I’ve written about the growth mindset before and how I’ve tried to embrace this in my teaching role. I incorporate the growth mindset in my work with students and when parenting my children. While I don’t necessary agree with Gladwell when he writes that 10,000 hours “is the magic number of greatness,” in a way, the concept almost numerically represents the growth mindset. It acknowledges that people have to commit time and energy to improve their performance and grow.  As Macklemore raps in his song Ten Thousand Hours,

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot

Greatness is earned through hard work and focused practice. While it may take more than 10,000 hours in some fields, Gladwell’s position communicates that it’s a journey.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions a meta-analysis. Psychological science, 25(8), 1608-1618.


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