Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule & What Really Separates the Best From the Rest
In 1993, Anders Ericsson arrived at the Music Academy of West Berlin to study violinists.
His goal: Figure out why the best violinists are better than the rest.
To this end, he asked the academy’s music professors to identify three sets of violin players.
- Best violinists – the most elite students who had the potential for careers as international soloists.
- Good violinists – students in the same department but less skilled than the best violinists.
- Music teachers – violin students from a different department with lower admission standards. These students were on track to become music teachers, and while serious about the violin, they weren’t in the same league as the other two groups.
(All groups had a similar music background, and gender and age of groups were successfully matched.)
To tease out differences between the groups, Ericsson obtained biographical information including the start of practice, sequence of music teachers, and participation in competitors. He also asked students to keep diaries for a full 7-day week, detailing how they spent their time.
The first difference he found was that the best and good violinists spent almost three times more hours practicing alone (24.3 hours per week on average) than the music teachers (9.3 hours). “Practice alone” was rated by all students as the most relevant activity for getting better. It was also rated as high on effort and low on enjoyment. In short, the top groups put in more hard work than the music teachers.
But what about the difference in performance between the best violinists and the good ones? Their lives looked almost identical, and both groups spent the same amount of time practicing alone.
The answer comes from the biographical data Ericsson obtained. When all subjects estimated the average number of hours of practice alone with the violin per week for each year since they had started playing the violin, an enlightening picture emerged: At age 18, the best violinists had accumulated an average of 7,410 hours of practice, the good violinists an average of 5,301 hours of practice, and the music teachers an average of 3,420 hours of practice.
- Best violinists: 7,410 hours
- Good violinists: 5,301 hours
- Music teachers: 3,420 hours
The difference in skill was directly proportional to the amount of quality practice the violinists had accumulated. More hours of practice equaled greater skills. This was the major difference Ericsson found between the best violinists and the rest.
In his book, Peak, he writes, “…there was only one major difference among the three groups. This was the total number of hours that the students had devoted to solitary practice.”
He continues: “…two things were strikingly clear from the study: First, to become an excellent violinist requires several thousand hours of practice. We found no shortcuts and no ‘prodigies,’ who reached an expert level with relatively little practice. And, second, even among those gifted musicians – all of whom had been admitted to the best music academy in Germany – the violinists who had spent significantly more hours practicing their craft were on average more accomplished than those who had spent less time practicing.”
When Ericsson conducted a similar study, this time with ballet dancers, he came to the same conclusion: “Again, we found no sign of anyone born with the sort of talent that would make it possible to reach the upper levels of ballet without working as hard or harder than anyone else.”
Study after study, the same pattern emerged: Greatness wasn’t born; it was made. It wasn’t the result of innate abilities or traits, but of thousands of hours of hard work.
Anders Ericsson has studied expert performance for over three decades. His research can be boiled down to two things the Greats in any field – the Roger Federers, the Mozarts, the Picassos, the Michael Jordans, the Tiger Woods’, the Beethovens, the Van Goghs, the Da Vincis – have in common.
1. They start early. Expert performers tend to start in their respective fields at a very young age, usually between four and six years old. This grants them an advantage over their peers for many reasons: they can accumulate more hours of practice, they are more likely to get recognized as “talented” for their age group, they are more likely to get funding and access to coaches and training facilities, and so on.
2. They accumulate more hours of quality (!) practice than their peers. Performance is in large part determined by quality practice – the more quality practice, the higher the performance level. As we’ve seen in the violin study, the best performers have simply accumulated more hours of quality practice. (This type of practice is known as deliberate practice.)
Of course, elite performers share more commonalities. But these two build the bedrock of greatness. Unless someone starts early, the chances of receiving support, getting access to top teachers, and getting funding are diminished drastically. And unless someone is willing to work incredibly hard, they won’t accumulate the hours of quality practice necessary to build extraordinary skills.
10,000 Hours to Greatness?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, citing the work of Anders Ericsson, popularized the 10,000-hour rule, which states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a given field. Gladwell writes: “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”
According to Anders Ericsson, the rule is flawed, though. For one thing, Gladwell doesn’t specify that the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity. In general, the higher the quality of practice, the less hours it takes to attain greatness – and vice-versa.
Also, the number of hours it takes to reach the top of a field depends on the field. In some, it might only take a few hundred hours of practice. In a well-developed field, on the other hand, it might take 20,000 hours. And again, it all depends on the quality of practice. For example, it’s now easier to reach the level of grandmaster in chess because the training methods have improved. Thus, it would take less hours.
The bottom line is this: the number of hours is irrelevant. The point is simply that greatness is the result of thousands of hours of hard work. As Anders Ericsson concludes in Peak, “By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice. I do not know of any serious scientist who doubts that conclusion.”
He adds, “No matter which area you study – music, dance, sports, competitive games, or anything else with objective measures of performance – you find that the top performers have devoted a tremendous amount of time to developing their abilities.”
Let’s consider some real-world examples.
Exhibit #1: Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympic athlete of all time. Because his achievements are so unbelievable, people dismiss his success to natural talent. After all, he literally did what no human had done before him – he has to be different, no?
Sure, Phelps has a long torso, long arms, and short legs. His anatomy is made for swimming. However, so is every other swimmer’s anatomy. According to H. Richard Weiner, a doctor and All-American swimmer, Phelps’ anatomy isn’t that unique in the swim world. He explains in a Scientific American article:
“I’m sure if we could measure Phelps as much as we would like, we would find attributes better than average for swimming, but I don’t think we would find any glaring abnormalities. I suspected if we could comprehensively measure all Olympians in finals, we would see significant differences [when compared to non-Olympians], but we would not see them having freakish things like 200 percent more lung capacity, or muscles that can contract at twice the [maximum] force of a normal human muscle. I mean, come on.”
Phelps’ physique surely played its part, but it’s smaller than everyone thinks. His advantages came in different forms: he started swimming at seven years old, fully committed when he was eleven, had the support of his family, got one of the best swim coaches, and, frankly, practiced more and better than the rest.
Phelps gives a taste of his work ethic in his book, No Limits: “For five years, from 1998 to 2003, we did not believe in days off. I had one because of a snowstorm, two more due to the removal of wisdom teeth. Christmas? See you at the pool. Thanksgiving? Pool. Birthdays? Pool. Sponsor obligations? Work them out around practice time.”
Phelps’ coach Bowman ensured that practice time was of the highest quality. He pushed his boundaries in all kinds of ways. He would ban him from drinking water in his breaks, change practice schedules at late notice, cancel taxis to take him home, or force him to swim without swimming goggles. Especially the last element of this training came in handy during the 2008 Olympic Games when Phelps’ goggles leaked and effectively rendered him blind for the race. Thanks to his practice, Phelps was well prepared, won the race anyway, and set a new record as well.
Exhibit #2: Stephen King
Stephen King is one of the most accomplished writers of our time. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many of them have been adapted into feature movies, miniseries, tv series, and comic books.
King started writing at an early age, and quickly fell in love with the craft. As a teenager, he wrote for school newspapers and made his first efforts to publish short stories in magazines – an unsuccessful endeavor as he recounts in On Writing: “When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…”
He continues: “By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It took him another ten years to publish his first novel. King’s secret is his love for writing, which allows him to write at an incredible level of consistency. He advocates putting in four to six hours of practice a day: “The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.”
King doesn’t just practice a lot, he practices well too. For one thing, he consistently pushed himself out of his comfort zone. His first story was published in a fanzine – the 1960’s equivalent to a blog. He then moved to second-tier men’s magazine, to top-tier men’s magazines, to top-tier science fiction and fantasy publications, and only then did he succeed in publishing his first novel. King was also careful not to just write for himself. By trying to get people to pay for his writing, he ensured a constant drip of invaluable feedback.
Exhibit #3: Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His artistic “talent,” was more acquired than inborn. To understand Picasso’s “genius” one has to understand his early life.
Picasso was exposed to art from the very beginning of his life. His father was a painter, a professor of art, and curator at a museum. As early as age four, Picasso started drawing and painting for fun. At age nine, he began intense training under his father’s tutelage.
Soon, Picasso lost all desire for regular schoolwork, choosing instead to spend his school days doodling in his notebook. He’s quoted as saying, "For being a bad student, I was banished to the 'calaboose,' a bare cell with whitewashed walls and a bench to sit on. I liked it there, because I took along a sketch pad and drew incessantly ... I could have stayed there forever, drawing without stopping."
At 14, Picasso and his family moved to Barcelona, where he got accepted to the prestigious School of Fine Arts in spite of being several years younger than most of his fellow students. At 16, he moved to Madrid to attend the Royal Academy of San Fernando, another fine art school.
Picasso’s entire life, from four years old till the day he died, was dedicated to art. Throughout his lifetime, he accumulated tens of thousands of hours of practice – that is, practice of high quality, including lots of experimentation, innovation, and learning from the best.
Exhibit #4: Sam Walton
Sam Walton was the founder of Walmart and once the richest man in America. He built the company from the ground up and turned it into the biggest retail store of his time. His story is one of practice, innovation, and constant experimentation.
As I read through his biography, Made in America, one pattern stood out to me: Time and time again he visited his competitors’ stores, “stole” their best ideas, and incorporated them into his own stores. It was a never-ending process of improvement – learning something new, experimenting, innovating.
In his own words: “As good as business was, I never could leave well enough alone, and, in fact, I think my constant fiddling and meddling with the status quo may have been one of my biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart.”
At one point in his life, Walton visited a retail store in Brazil where he got arrested and had to get bailed out by his relatives. Walton, an older man at the time, was found on his knees measuring the floor of the store he was in. Police officers got suspicious and arrested him. In truth, Walton was measuring the length of the Aisle space of the Brazilian store in order to understand how much space they left between aisles.
This may be a far-fetched example, but in a way, Sam Walton’s skill was retailing – and he practiced it more and better than anyone else.
This was the first article in a series on expert performance and deliberate practice. The remaining articles in this series are:
- The Road to Greatness: 3 Steps from Child to Best in the World – Explores what the road to greatness really looks like. Turns out it’s more about luck, interest, motivation, and passion, rather than talent.
- The Myth of Natural Talent: Prodigies, Savants, and the Real Role Inborn Qualities Play in Elite Performance – Goes into the details behind why “natural talent” has very little to do with expert performance and explains the role inborn qualities play in the acquisition of elite-level skills.
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice – A complete guide on the science of deliberate practice, which is the #1 predictor of elite performance and the most effective practice method for developing skills rapidly.
- 14 Real World Examples of Deliberate Practice in Action – Gives fourteen examples of how people are using deliberate practice right now to improve their skills and get an unfair advantage over their peers.
- How to Use the Principles of Deliberate Practice to Succeed at Anything You Want – A complete roadmap to using the principles of deliberate practice in your life, so you can improve any skill you want.
- 10 Things Elite Athletes, Musicians, and Intellectuals Do Differently – A compilation of ten things research has found elite performers do differently than the rest of us. (Hint: deliberate practice is one of the things.)